The cold weather we’re experiencing this Winter is not just unpleasant, but it can also be harmful to your health. At London Doctors Clinic, we have seen patients complaining of a multitude of winter-illnesses, from exposure to the cold weather! Our GP’s can advise on all of these conditions, from colds and flu, to frostbite, Raynaud’s and – our topic of the day – Chilblains.
What Are Chilblains?
Chilblains are small, red, and itchy swellings on the skin (commonly on the toes), which occur as an abnormal response to cold temperatures. In addition to the toes, they can also affect other extremities, such as the fingers, ears and nose. However, other areas of skin can develop chilblains as well, such as the heels, lower legs or thighs.
Why Do We Get Chilblains?
Chilblains happen when the tiny blood vessels under the skin narrow when the skin becomes cold. The blood supply to areas of skin may then become very slow. As the skin re-warms there is some leakage of fluid from the blood vessels into the tissues (due to the sudden change in temperature), and this causes areas of inflammation and swelling, then called chilblains.
Types of chilblains
Chilblains can be one of two types:
- Short term: these develop 12-24 hours after exposure to cold temperatures, and get better in 7-14 days if you keep warm
- Long term: these last a minimum of five months per year for the last three years, and cause persistent sores that can lead to scarring
What Causes Chilblains?
Anyone who is exposed to cold (and then suddenly warm) temperatures is at some risk of getting chilblains. Some people, however, may be more at risk than others:
- People with poor circulation
- People with a family history of chilblains
- People who live in damp, cold conditions, or who have a poor diet or low body weight
- People with certain conditions, such as lupus or Raynaud’s syndrome
- People who smoke
Who is Affected?
Chilblains can occur at any age, but children and older adults tend to be most affected. Women tend to be more affected than men too.
Sometimes, people who have certain medical conditions or who live in regions of the world where cold, damp weather is the norm can be at a higher risk of getting chilblains.
You may notice that you are affected several hours after being exposed to cold temperatures. Other symptoms to watch out for include:
- Itching and burning of the affected area in cold spaces, which intensifies when you enter a warm room
- Swelling and redness of the affected area, which may, in more severe cases, cause the surface of the skin to break and sores or blisters to develop
Redness and itching on the skin of your feet, hands or other susceptible areas are signs that you have chilblains, and you may be able to recognise this yourself.
If you are unsure, the best next step is to book an appointment at your GP surgery or see a chiropodist. You will likely be asked about your symptoms, and the area you are having trouble with will be examined. A diagnosis will usually be based on your description of what you are experiencing, and a physical exam of the area.
Although they are uncomfortable, chilblains do not cause permanent damage and will heal on their own if further exposure to cold is avoided. Occasionally, severe or long lasting chilblains may cause some scarring to the skin.
Chilblains usually take one to two weeks to get better if you keep warm. Some cases can last months and may flare up whenever the weather gets cold.
If you have chilblains that are not infected, and the skin isn’t broken, you can take care of them yourself at home by painting them with a mixture of friar’s balsam, and a weak solution of iodine, which can be obtained from your local pharmacy.
Although they are itchy and it is understandable that you want to scratch them, try not to irritate the skin as it can break, and become infected. If you think the skin over your chilblains is broken or infected, see your GP, who can help you and may recommend antibiotics.
Iodine solution is very effecting at preventing infection, such as in chilblains
Prevention is The Best Medicine: Avoiding Chilblains!
The best way to avoid the discomfort of having chilblains is not to get them in the first place! Fortunately, there are lots of simple measures you can take to lower your risk of suffering from this uncomfortable condition. Try some of the tips below:
- Stay warm, especially in colder weather
- The principal cause of chilblains is cold temperatures
- Stay active
- Exercise helps your circulation, and is great for your overall health
- Stop smoking
- Nicotine in cigarettes causes blood vessels to constrict, which can make chilblains worse
- Take good care of your feet
- Wearing the correct footwear and moisturising regularly keeps the skin healthy, and healthy skin is less prone to cracking.
- If you are diabetic, have regular foot check ups
- Medicines are not generally needed
- Occasionally a medicine called Nifedipine can be used, which helps to widen blood vessels, and may treat chilblains that are not settling over the course of time
A chiropodist can help you maintain healthy, well-moisturised feet to keep Chilblains at bay!
For more information on any of the conditions mentioned in this article, we recommend booking an appointment at any of our private GP clinics. We have eight convenient central London clinics, so shouldn’t be far away when you need to find a GP.
By Melissa Dillon