Chilblains 

Introduction 

Chilblains are small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures. They most often affect the body's extremities, such as the toes, fingers, heels, ears and nose.

Chilblains can be uncomfortable, but they rarely cause any permanent damage and will normally heal within a few weeks if further exposure to the cold is avoided.

Signs and symptoms of chilblains

Chilblains usually develop several hours after exposure to the cold. They typically cause a burning and itching sensation in the affected areas, which can become more intense if you go into a warm room.

The affected skin may also swell and turn red or dark blue. In severe cases, the surface of the skin may break and sores or blisters can develop.  

It's important not to scratch the skin as it can break easily and become infected.

When to seek medical advice

Most people don't need to seek medical advice if they have chilblains as they usually heal within a few weeks and don't cause any permanent problems.

However, you should see your GP or chiropodist for advice if you have severe or recurring chilblains, or if they don't improve within a few weeks. You should also seek medical advice if you think your skin may have become infected.

What causes chilblains?

Chilblains are the result of an abnormal reaction to the cold. 

When the skin is cold, blood vessels near its surface get narrower. If the skin is then exposed to heat, the blood vessels become wider. 

If this happens too quickly, blood can leak into the surrounding tissue. This is thought to be the reason for the swelling and itchiness associated with chilblains.

Chilblains can occur at any age, but are more common in children and elderly people. The condition also affects women more than men. Certain people, such as people with poor circulation, are more susceptible to the condition.

Chilblains are common in the UK because damp, cold weather is usual in the winter. Some people develop chilblains every winter that last for several months.

Read more about the causes of chilblains.

Treating chilblains

Chilblains will often get better on their own without treatment after a week or two.

Several creams and lotions are available that claim to treat chilblains, but there is no clinical evidence that they work and they are not recommended.

If your chilblains are severe and they keep returning, your GP may recommend taking a daily tablet or capsule of a medication called nifedipine. This works by relaxing the blood vessels, improving your circulation. 

Nifedipine can be used to help existing chilblains heal or can be taken during the winter to stop them developing.

Preventing chilblains

If you are susceptible to chilblains, you can reduce your risk of developing them by limiting your exposure to the cold, looking after your feet and taking steps to improve your circulation.

A number of self-help measures can help, including:

  • wearing warm clothes and ensuring your home is well heated
  • keeping active
  • stopping smoking
  • avoiding tight-fitting shoes and boots

If your skin gets cold, it's important to warm it up gradually. Heating the skin too quickly, for example by placing your feet in hot water or near a heater, is one of the main causes of chilblains.

Read more about preventing chilblains.

Complications of chilblains

If you have severe or recurring chilblains, there is a small risk of further problems developing, such as:

  • infection from blistered or scratched skin
  • ulcers forming on the skin
  • permanent discolouration of the skin
  • scarring of the skin

It is often possible to avoid these complications by not scratching or rubbing the affected areas of skin, and not directly overheating the chilblains (by using hot water, for example).

You can also help reduce your risk of infection by cleaning any breaks in your skin with antiseptic and covering the area with an antiseptic dressing. The dressing should be changed every other day until the skin heals. 

If the skin does become infected, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the infection.

Page last reviewed: 26/11/2013

Next review due: 26/11/2015

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Comments

The 8 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Rwthless said on 09 March 2014

I had bad childblains on my feet as a child for a number of years 1950s mostly from living in an unheated farmhouse without carpets on stone and wood floors. After various abortive and occasionally traumatic treatments, my mother and I established that the best way to treat was to avoid. Always keeping my feet warm, especially putting on socks and shoes on getting out of bed, or at least slippers. This made the problem recede almost permanently. Until then, a tablet called Pernivit, which contained nicotinic acid and boosted the circulation did help when I had them, but not a lot. An ointment called Trafuril made me feel better, so it may have reduced the itching a bit. Not putting cold feet into a warm electrically heated bed was another avoidance strategy. The itching on my feet was unbearable, and I have found that a brisk walk is better by far than putting feet towards the fire.

So keeping warm at all times and the circulation going to the extremities seems to be the best solution and prevention.

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RibeenaG said on 22 February 2014

I've had chill blains multiple times, and always because I walk in my kitchen barefoot, on the cold tile floor. I haven't really found any way of making it go for good, but putting E45 or any other soothing cream can really help relieve some of the itching. Also, soaking your feet in warm water can really help sometimes. I've learnt to keep it at bay by wearing shoes in the house!

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peaches79 said on 17 January 2014

Yup, I second the pee remedy. Used to be in agony all winter as a child until my Nana told me about it. Those were the days before central heating and decent shoes/thermal socks : ie warming numb feet at an open fire =chilblains! Haven't had them for over 20 years since I did the dirty deed..except I've been outdoors for work reasons the last couple of weeks without decent insulated waterproof footwear(regatta are good and not too expensive) and they've come back..totally forgot about pee but will be doing it again a.s.a.p.! I do remember my mother buying tablets/creams etc but only the pee worked and to be honest they were so painful and itchy I would have done anything! Good luck and get well soon! Xx

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hsb14 said on 30 March 2013

Just from experience, my mother always tells me to massage the affected area every night with a mild lotion, or even an oil. This really helps ease the itching and in my experience, toes heal within a week or so; I just used olive oil and massage gently in circular motions.

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anitapa said on 07 February 2013

An update for my last review. My treatment was only effective for that one night. It did not work again. A work colleague told me to urinate on my feet. Apparently it is a old home remedy which her mother passed on to her. It took me a few days to bring myself to do it. I did it as hygienically as possible. I urinated in a old plastic tub first thing in the morning. I then stepped into the shower and immersed one foot in it at a time for maybe 30 seconds or so. I then put the tub outside the shower cubicle and showered after which i poured the urine down the toilet. I did this 3 mornings on the trot and my chillblains have gone. I will say though that aloe vera did get rid of the itching.

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anitapa said on 29 January 2013

i have had red sore swollen itchy toes since december. didnt know what it was. the skin on one toe had peeled and looked awful. just been to gp and there was no real interest there. i have had to self treat and now self diagnose. my toes were so itchy and burning yesterday i couldnt bear it. i soaked feet in warm salty water. i then moisturised my feet just with regular moisturiser. finally i applied fresh aloe vera all over my feet. all the symptoms disappeared. no soreness, itching, redness. i had a very good night sleep. i will do that every night and hope it carries on working.

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Kerenza said on 23 January 2013

I put tiger balm on mine.
Ok so, I have no medical experience what so ever. But last night my toes were itching so much I couldn't sleep. So as tiger balm has a numbing effect I put as much as I could. It has eased the itching, and stopped me threatening to cut my toes off. My feet are still painful and freakishly red and swollen. However I can now sleep and I don't see how it could be doing any harm...

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ploby said on 24 May 2011

I wear a surgical stocking as I have prominent veins in my leg. Does this restrict the flow of blood to my toes and result inthe chiblains on my toes? It does not mention this on the chilblain page but it is perhaps implied.

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