Chilblains, also known as pernio, are inflammations of the skin which appear like red itchy patches on the skin. They are caused when a particular part of the body suffers for extreme temperature change, especially when it is exposed to extreme cold for a long time and then brought back to warm temperature suddenly. Chilblains usually tend to develop on extremities like toes, fingers, nose and ears which have maximum exposure to cold. They can be avoided or treated by keeping all body parts covered from exposure to cold. Applying lotions and moisturizers is also recommended.
Chilblains tend to develop most commonly in children and elderly during cold, wet season. The main cause is that when skin is exposed to extreme cold, the blood vessels under the exposed skin tend to narrow down. When the skin is brought in contact with warm temperature suddenly, the blood vessels widen very rapidly which causes some of the blood to leak out of the vessels and cause the skin to inflate and become red. Chilblains are an abnormal reaction to the cold and are not a very rare disease, though it is still uncertain why some people develop chilblains on being exposed to cold while others do not.
- Skin turns a bright or deep red which may later turn blue.
- The red patches tend to itch a lot.
- Some people also experience a burning sensation.
- Usually appear in toes and fingers but may also appear on the nose or ears.
- Skin swells up.
- Ulcerations are also possible in severe cases.
The first sign of a developing chilblain is itchiness in the skin or a burning sensation which lingers for a long time. Sometimes, with proper care and keeping the area of skin which is itching covered from cold can prevent chilblains. But if not cared for, it will soon start turning red and the burning sensation increases significantly. The skin swells up and it becomes quite painful, especially if the chilblain is developed on fingers or toes as the inflamed digits are more difficult to bend and move normally.
There are no recommended tests for chilblains since it is a very mild disease and can be diagnosed on visual inspection. In some cases where ulcers develop or if there seems probability of a secondary infection, a lab test or a skin biopsy may be performed in which a skin sample is examined in detail under a microscope to detect the presence of something more dangerous than a normal chilblain.
Diagnosis for a chilblain is quite uncomplicated as a GP requires only one look at the condition to diagnose it as Chilblains. It occurs only during the cold season, so if you have red itchy patches on your skin, chances are quite high that it is a chilblain. If the weather is not too cold, the doctor may ask you if you have recently visited a part of the world which is extremely cold this time of the year. People who develop chilblains also usually have a history of them as chilblains tend to recur every year for people who are susceptible to them even after taking all the precautions possible.
Chilblains are usually mild and do not even affect you in any way other than the extremely irritating itching sensation and the slight pain you may feel due to the inflamed skin. As long as these body parts which have developed chilblains are kept covered up from the cold, and suitable calamine lotions and moisturizers have been applied, they should heal on their own within ten days or so. However, they tend to recur with every cold season, so if you have had them in the past, then you should be extra careful to protect yourself from exposure to cold.
If you are susceptible to chilblains, then you should make sure that all your body parts, especially the extremities are properly covered from exposure to cold. Wear several layers of warm clothing. Woollen socks, ear muffs and gloves are an absolute essential. Also, avoid wearing tight shoes as they restrict the blood flow. Simply keep your body as warm as possible by drinking hot drinks and sitting in heated rooms to prevent chilblains. Also, if you are smoker, you should think about quitting smoking as it also affects the blood vessels and causes chilblains.
Types of Chilblains :
There are two types of Chilblains :
- Acute – These chilblains appear only during the winter season due to exposure to cold. They are quite common and take hardly ten days to heal. No medication is required for treating these chilblains except preventive care.
- Chronic – These are a more severe version of chilblains and remain present for 3-5 months in a year. They are most commonly experienced by people who live in extremely cold environments where weather is cold for the most part of the year. The symptoms and signs are the same but they are much more painful.
Chilblains, on their own, do not cause harm, especially if they are cared for on time. If however preventive care is not taken, they may tend to blister or invite secondary infection. This infection may then make the situation very complicated and may even be life threatening if left untreated.
Home Remedies :
Chilblains can be treated at home quite effectively with the following remedies:
- Rub lemon juice on the fingers and toes to soothe itchiness.
- Prepare a mixture of egg whites, flour and honey and apply it like an ointment on the chilblains.
- Prepare a solution of either radish and boiled water or onion juice in water and soak the affected areas for 5-10 minutes twice a day.
- Essential oils like rosemary and eucalyptus can be used to massage the affected areas to reduce swelling.
Chilblains generally do not require treatment and in most cases do not even warrant a visit to the doctor. However, if you do visit the doctor, he may prescribe some lotions and creams to be applied. Compound tincture of benzoin or Friar’s balsam is a popular antiseptic cream for chilblains. Calamine lotion and witch hazel is often used to soothe the itching and burning sensations. For people who have a history of developing chilblains, a medicine called Nifedipine is used to prevent chilblains or to keep them mild even when they do develop.
Chilblains and Raynaud’s Syndrome :
Raynaud’s syndrome is also a disease contracted in fingers and toes due to exposure to cold. However, it is much more severe than chilblains. The difference between the two is that in Raynaud’s the skin exposed to cold becomes white and goes absolutely numb. It also throbs painfully when brought in warm environment. This syndrome is most commonly developed by smokers. Chilblains do not require special treatment but in case of Raynaud’s syndrome, it becomes essential to contact your doctor immediately.