What are chilblains?

Chilblains are a painful inflammatory reaction that normally affects the toe, but can affect other parts of the foot and even the hands, nose and ears. They only occur in colder climates, but are not really due to the cold. They are caused when a cold toe is warmed up too rapidly. Normally when we get cold, the blood vessels constrict to conserve heat, but need to open up when we are warm to get rid of heat and remove waste products from the skin. In a chilblain the small blood vessels do not open as quickly as they should when a cold foot is warmed up. This means that waste products build up in the skin, triggering a painful inflammatory reaction.

A typical chilblains is initially red, itchy and painful. It later develops into a bluish area that can breakdown from pressure on the toe from footwear. They are more common in females and can occur at any age. Poor circulation is not generally a problem as younger people with good circulation can get chilblains. While chilblains may seem to be a chronic problem in the winter months, a single chilblain can heal quite quickly. The problems arise when a new chilblain forms everyday I the cold weather giving the impression that it is chronic.

Prevention is the best way to treat a chilblain and that is by keeping the foot warm with the use of thick socks and closed in shoes. If the foot does get cold, its very important that it is warmed up slowly and not put in front of a direct source of heat. The blood vessels need to be given time to open as the foot slowly warms up. If a chilblain does develop, then the use of a number of creams and gentle rubbing can be used to stimulate the circulation. Those with more severe problems can get a medicine from their doctor to help keep the circulation open, but this affects the circulation in the whole body and not just the foot, so can have side affects.