The other day I was asked by one of my patients about chilblains – not something one hears much about these days, so I decided to jot down some info on this bone fide medical condition
Chilblains, otherwise known as ‘pernio’, are small, itchy, painful lumps that can develop on the skin. Found on eithers hands or feet, they are caused by local poor circulation when the skin is exposed to cold.
Not a prolonged condition, these irritating lumps settle after about 7 – 14 days but if you are susceptible to this abnormal response to the cold, you should try your best to keep your extremities warm in winter.
Who suffers the most from chilblains? – Chilblains can strike at any age and both men and women suffer in equal number. It’s thought that around 1 in 10 people in the UK suffer from chilblains, not only hands and feet they can also occur on the nose and earlobes – anywhere that becomes cold quite quickly, for example, horse riders might have problems with their lower legs and thighs….
Causes of chilblains – The reasons why some people are susceptible and others not is unclear, but we do know that the small blood vessel lying under the skin constrict when cold, which in turn reduces the amount of blood supply getting to the area. As the skin warms there is some leakage of fluid from the blood vessels into the local tissues. Inflammation and swelling result, leading to the symptom of chilblains.
Prevention is better than cure with this uncomfortable complaint:
- One of the key ways to help avoid the chilblain taking hold is to avoid warming your self up too quickly after exposure to cold – avoid hot water bottles, sitting next to direct heat etc
- Keep head, ears, hands, feet warm when outside in cold weather (heated glove and sock inserts can be a real help)
- Keep the body as warm as possible – loose layers are best to trap body heat
- Keep body and extremities as dry as possible
- Some medication can constrict the blood vessels which leads to chilblain susceptibility – beta-blockers are one example
Chilblains are uncomfortable but do not tend to leave lasting damage. If they become a real issue your doctor might consider a drug to help dilate the small blood vessels, but this is rarely indicated.
So, condolences if you are a chilblain sufferer! Also, apologies for the lack of really constructive solutions for this sometimes debilitating problem. The good news is that you only have another 4 or so months to avoid the cold – spring will be here before you know it!