Most people have heard of chilblains – 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.
When the skin is cold, blood vessels near its surface get narrower. If the skin is then exposed to heat, the blood vessels get wider again. 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 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.
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.