What are chilblains?

Chilblains are small lesions caused by the inflammation of tiny blood vessels after exposure to cold air. They’re often painful and tend to affect the skin on your hands and feet. Other names for this condition include pernio, perniosis, and cold-induced vascular disorder.

Keep reading to learn more about why they happen and how to get rid of them.

What are the symptoms?

Chilblains are patches of skin that appear swollen and red or occasionally blue in color. Due to the swelling, they may look shiny.

Other symptoms include:

  • burning sensation
  • blisters
  • itchiness

What causes them?

Cold weather can cause small blood vessels near the surface of your skin to tighten. Once you warm up, these small vessels may expand too quickly. This may cause blood to leak into nearby tissue, resulting in swelling. The swelling then irritates nerves in the affected area, causing pain.

Doctors aren’t sure why this happens, but it may be related to an unusual reaction to cold exposure and rewarming.

Are there any risk factors?

While it’s unclear exactly what causes chilblains, there are a few things that might increase your risk of developing them.

Some risk factors for chilblains include:

  • clothing that’s too tight or leaves skin exposed to cold, damp conditions
  • living in a damp climate
  • smoking
  • being female
  • weighing about 20 percent less or more than the healthy weight for your height
  • having poor circulation
  • having lupus
  • having Raynaud’s phenomenon, which can cause its own types of sores

How are they diagnosed?

Your doctor can usually diagnose chilblains during a basic physical examination. They may also ask you some questions about any recent exposure to unusually cold or wet weather. In rare cases, they may decide to do a biopsy of the affected area. This involves removing a small tissue sample and looking at it under a microscope for signs of any underlying condition, such as skin cancer.

If you’ve had chilblains before, you’ll likely recognize them on your own. However, if you’ve never had them before, it’s best to check in with your doctor to make sure it’s not something else, such as cold urticaria or vasculitis.

If this is a new experience for you, your doctor might want to rule out any potentially related conditions, such as lupus or a circulation issue, that require treatment.

How are they treated?

Chilblains usually go away on their own within one to three weeks. In many cases, your symptoms will start to diminish as you warm up. If you have ongoing itching, your doctor might prescribe you a corticosteroid cream to reduce inflammation. If you have poor circulation or diabetes, your chilblains may not heal well.

In some cases, your doctor might also prescribe blood pressure medications to help open up the small vessels near your skin’s surface. This will also help to reduce inflammation and pain.

You may be able to prevent chilblains by protecting your hands and feet from exposure to the cold.

Always contact your doctor if your symptoms last for more than three weeks, the pain is severe, or you don’t seem to be getting any better.

Is there anything I can do at home?

While it’s usually best to let chilblains run their course, there are a few things you can do at home to ease your symptoms. As soon as you notice symptoms, try to slowly warm up the affected area by putting it under a blanket. Avoid applying direct heat because warming up the area too rapidly can make your symptoms worse.

In addition, avoid massaging or rubbing the area. While this might seem like a good way to slowly warm the area, it can increase irritation and inflammation. As your chilblains heal, apply a gentle, unscented lotion to the area to keep your skin moisturized. This is especially important if your chilblains have blisters. Keeping your skin clean and moisturized will reduce your risk of developing an infection.

What’s the outlook?

Chilblains can be painful and uncomfortable, but they usually don’t cause any long-term health problems. In most cases, they heal on their own within a few weeks. If you get them frequently, they don’t seem to heal, you think they might be infected, or you get them during the warm seasons, make an appointment with your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that requires treatment or your symptoms may be caused by something else.

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