Chilblains develop as a reaction to the cold in susceptible individuals. They present as itchy, painful red/purple swellings in the skin. They occur most commonly on the extremities; fingers, toes, nose and earlobes can be affected.

They are a kind of ‘cold injury’. People who suffer them seem to have poor circulation. When they get cold, the small arteries in the skin constrict more than usual and this seems to lead to inflammation which causes the swellings. Some people with chilblains also suffer from Raynaud’s phenomenon. They occur most commonly when there is a sudden change in temperature.

Common symptoms associated with chilblains
Itchy red swellings which may become purple over time. They may produce a burning sensation and can be tender to the touch. Sometimes blisters develop and if the skin is broken through scratching, infection is a possibility.

They usually last a few days and then subside over the next 2-3 weeks, unless the area continues to be exposed to the cold.

You can prevent chilblains by keeping yourself warm. Good gloves and socks are important. Wearing layers of thinner materials may be better than one very thick layer. Hand warmers are available from outdoor/adventure shops. If you re-warm your hands or feet after sudden exposure to the cold, use warm water rather than hot. Gradual re-warming is better for the tissues.

Some drugs such as beta- blockers may affect the circulation and cause chilblains.

Drug treatments are available but are usually reserved for very severe cases, or for people who suffer chilblains every winter, despite preventative measures.

Further information

This article published on
25 November 2005

Next review date 11/1/2013


Skin, hair and bones
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