Most people have heard of chilblains – small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures. Usually, they 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.
When the skin is cold, blood vessels near its surface get narrower. They then become wider again as the skin warms up. If this process happens too quickly, blood can leak into the surrounding tissue, resulting in the swelling and itchiness associated with chilblains. The problem can occur at any age, but is more common in children, the elderly and people with poor circulation.
Chilblains will often heal without treatment after a week or two. There is a variety of creams and lotions that claim to treat chilblains, but there is no clinical evidence that they work. 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 to improve circulation.
If you are susceptible to chilblains, you can reduce the likelihood of developing them by keeping out of the cold, looking after your feet and improving your circulation.