If you think of who would suffer from chilblains, you’d likely conjure up the image of an explorer in the South Pole battling the snow and ice.
Chilblains can develop wherever it’s cold and damp, which makes the population of the UK prime candidates for the condition! Before you panic, it’s common for those who develop chilblains to have been exposed to the cold and damp regularly and for substantial periods of time.
The condition occurs when your small blood vessels react to prolonged periods of exposure to cold, damp temperatures. It results in red patches, itchy skin, swelling, and even blistering in some cases. Chilblains usually improve and disappear on their own when the individual spends time in warmer temperatures; however, the risk is that any blisters formed could weep and become infected, or that blood from the inflammation seeps into other tissue.
There are some risk factors that can cause chilblains to occur—as we’ve already said, being exposed to temperatures that allow them to grow and thrive is the main one. However, it’s worth knowing that women are more likely to suffer from chilblains than men.
Being underweight can be a risk factor, as can wearing tight clothing, presumably because this doesn’t allow the skin to breathe. Conversely, wearing too few clothes in low temperatures could leave you open to developing chilblains, though this is perhaps common sense.
People with poor circulation may also develop chilblains, as their blood flow is already compromised; their vessels can easily become blocked, inflamed or swollen if they’re exposed to the cold and damp for any length of time. Smokers are also more prone; nicotine affects the blood vessels and causes them to constrict.
Certain conditions, such as Raynaud’s disease and lupus, can increase the risk of developing chilblains. In people with Raynaud’s, chilblains can turn into painful sores. Lupus, as an auto-immune disease, perhaps doesn’t allow the body to fight chilblains when they appear. Diabetes is also a risk factor; people with this condition typically find sores and infections take longer to heal/recover from.
The best advice to avoid chilblains if you do have to endure cold and damp temperatures for any length of time is to dress appropriately. This means wearing lots of layers whilst also keeping your clothing loose enough to allow your body to breathe—and sweat. Sweat helps to control body temperature; the moisture your body produces keeps your skin cool and stops it from overheating under your layers. Covering your extremities is important—so gloves and woolly socks, and maybe even a balaclava or face covering that covers the face, the nose in particular. If you know that you may exposed to the damp, it’s a good idea to wear waterproof clothing.
When coming out of the cold, it’s not advised to immediately sit next to a roaring fire, however tempting this may be. The sudden change to another extreme temperature could still see chilblains form; instead, warm up gradually and allow your skin to become accustomed to the temperature change.
As one of your extremities, it’s common to see chilblains on your feet, which may appear as small lesions on the skin of your toes, etc. This could also be because your toes and fingers can suffer more from poor circulation, which is one of the risk factors. Your feet are also the part of your body most likely to be amid water/dampness when you’re outside in bad weather. Another reason could be that, if water gets into your shoes/boots, it’s difficult to address this until you’re inside and can take your shoes and socks off.
Chilblains can become itchy when you’re in warmer temperatures; however, resist the urge to scratch them. The last thing you want to do is burst the blisters or create sores, as these could become infected and cause you more pain.
If you’re suffering from chilblains and would like some advice on treatment, give our experts a call on 01226 492412 (for our Wombwell clinic) or 0113 238 0330 (Morley clinic). Alternatively, you can contact us here