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What are Chilblains?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Chilblains, also called pernio, are red to purple bumps that appear on the skin of extremities, usually the hands and feet, after exposure to cold. They are more common among women, children, and the elderly and are the result of constriction of the blood vessels that supply the extremities.

One might think that chilblains occur under the same conditions as frostbite, which is around 5 degrees F (-15 C). In reality, the damage from chilblains is not permanent and can occur in warmer weather. Keeping the extremities warm by wearing mittens and warm footwear tends to prevent the condition. Chilblains are actually not that common in extremely cold weather because people tend to be prepared to deal with the cold with warm clothing. Areas that have occasional bouts of cold weather usually have higher incidences of chilblains. Also, areas where people cannot afford warm clothing have a higher prevalence of the condition.

There are a few factors, which make one more predisposed to getting chilblains. People with poor circulation due to smoking or conditions like lupus may be more susceptible. Poor nutrition, bone marrow disorders, or family history of chilblains may also place one more at risk. Those with diabetes may be particularly prone to chilblains, and should always get medical attention for chilblains present on the feet.

Although chilblains most commonly occur on hands and feet, people can also get them on the lower legs and thighs, and on the nose or ears. Babies may get them on their wrists. The bumps can be itchy, or feel very tender to the touch. Severe cases may also blister the skin, resembling a second to third degree burn in appearance. Bumps and blisters tend to resolve in one to two weeks.

Chilblains are usually treated with corticosteroid cream to reduce itchiness. They can become infected however, so many dermatologists also recommend using an antibiotic cream as well. Sometimes infected chilblains require oral antibiotics. Symptoms of infection include red streaks coming out of the chilblains, feelings of heat and pressure at the site of the chilblain, and signs of pus or bad smell.

The best way to prevent chilblains is to keep warm on chilly days. Consider gloves or mittens, airtight shoes, warm socks, scarves, and hats. Keep homes heated as chilblains can occur indoors as well as out. Use of sunscreen, even on overcast days, can also help prevent chilblains.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By labandibar — On Mar 14, 2008

Hello from one of the .01 percent of the United States that suffers from chilblains. I had them every winter for the last seven years. My toes would swell and I developed angry red blisters on the sides. A visit to the podiatrist the first year I experienced it did no good. His idea was niacin pills. Last year, I went to a rheumatologist. She prescribed Diltiazem. This is normally used for hypertension. My blood pressure is 90/60. But I took 30mg twice daily for only a few months and then was able to discontinue altogether.

The symptoms have almost completely disappeared. If I do get a touch of it, I just take the Diltiazem for a few days and I am back to normal.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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