Chilblains, also called Perniosis or blain, is a medical condition similar to frostbite or trench foot. Chilblains are caused by exposure of skin to damp cold. Small blood vessels below the skin are damaged, but there is no freezing of tissue, thus distinguishing it from frostbite.

What is it?

Chilblains are one of the mildest but most common forms of cold injury and can occur when there is exposure to cold and dampness. There is no tissue freezing with chilblains and they most frequently occur on the fingers, toes, ears and face but may also affect other areas of the body.

What causes it?

The basic cause of chilblains is sensitivity to cold, but they can also be the result of poor circulation or skin sensitivity. This condition should not be confused with frostbite. The affected skin may have an itchy, burning sensation. This may progress to blisters and even open sores (ulcers). The condition usually clears up within seven to 14 days. To prevent chilblains, avoid exposure to cold.

What are the symptoms?

The affected area may be itchy, reddish-blue in colour, swollen and often very painful. Blisters containing clear fluid may form and the affected area will have an ongoing sensitivity to cold. There is usually no other permanent damage.

Are there any natural therapies?

Treatment is to slowly rewarm the affected skin after cold exposure. Ulcers should be kept clean and protected with sterile dressings. However, for further treatment:

  • If you are temperature-sensitive you should always try to keep your feet and hands warm and avoid extreme changes in temperature.
  • Lanolin-based creams that you can get from your pharmacy can be applied to ease irritation and stop the skin from swelling.
  • Regular exercise and a healthy diet will assist in correcting circulatory problems.
  • Smoking should be avoided as it restricts blood vessels and hinders circulation.
  • Chilblains are often itchy, but should not be scratched as this aggravates the condition and slows the healing. Because of underlying circulatory problems, infection of open scratches can be a problem.
  • Massaging the affected area, if appropriate (it is not too painful or ulcerated), often helps—especially if the problem is associated with circulatory problems.
  • The affected area should be kept warm, but do not apply hot packs as the condition can be made worse because of temperature sensitivity.
  • Severe cases will need medical attention. Treatments your doctor may use include cortisone creams, ointment or patches that dilate blood vessels, and occasionally, tablets that improve blood flow to the affected area.

Did you know?

The cause of chilblains isn't known. But blood tests in some people with chilblains may reveal abnormal proteins that tend to sludge in cold temperatures.