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