Chilblains.org

Your resource for managing chilblains

What are chilblains?

Chilblains, from the Old English “chill” (cold) and “blegen” (sore), are areas of inflammation and swelling of the skin.1 Chilblains typically appear as red, swollen patches of skin on the feet or sometimes hands. The affected areas of the skin may also appear shiny. This condition is also known as perniosis or “pernio.”2

Chilblains can also appear on other body parts such as the ears, nose, or legs, and may sometimes appear blue, though these symptoms are less common.

Patients with chilblains often describe burning and/or itching associated with the inflamed areas.

What causes chilblains?

Chilblains are caused by changes to blood vessels in response to the cold.3

Damp air, in combination with the cold, may also contribute to the formation of chilblains. Chilblains typically appears more in cold, damp climates, particularly in locations “without central heating such as parts of the UK and northern Europe” (though cases have been reported in a wide variety of climates).4

Fast rewarming may also play a role in the formation of chilblains — according to the Mayo Clinic, “Rewarming of cold skin can cause small blood vessels under the skin to expand more quickly than nearby larger blood vessels can handle.” Rewarming gradually, rather than quickly, may help mitigate the formation of chilblains.5

Treatment

Chilblains symptoms usually go away within 2-3 weeks, but may persist for longer, or recur over time — particularly if an individual is regularly exposed to cold conditions without sufficient warming layers.

Several options are recommended to mitigate chilblains symptoms6:

  • Rewarm the skin slowly and gently, without massaging, rubbing or applying direct heat.
  • Avoid cold exposure whenever possible.
  • Keep the affected skin dry and warm, but away from sources of heat.
  • Apply lotion to alleviate itching, such as hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion, witch hazel, or chilblains cream; these products may help soothe the itching and burning
  • Keep any blisters and sores clean and covered.
  • Avoid scratching the affected skin (scratching can lead the skin to break and become infected). If any of the affected area has broken or cracked, keep it covered with a clean dressing every day.

There is evidence that smoking exacerbates chilblains (or contributes to increased likelihood of their development). When possible, it is recommended to limit smoking.

A range of topical ointments specifically developed for chilblains relief are available (these can be viewed on the “Products” page).

The NHS recommends consulting a doctor in the case of severe and recurring chilblains. According to the NHS, the doctor “may recommend taking a daily tablet or capsule of a medication called nifedipine. This works by relaxing the blood vessels, improving your circulation. Nifedipine can be used to help existing chilblains heal, or can be taken during the winter to stop them developing.”7

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  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549842/ ↩︎
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/chilblains#symptoms ↩︎
  3. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/chilblains; Some sources state that the exact causes of chilblains is unknown, e.g., Mayo Clinic: “The exact cause of chilblains is unknown. They may be an unusual reaction of your body to cold followed by rewarming. Rewarming of cold skin can cause small blood vessels under the skin to expand more quickly than nearby larger blood vessels can handle.” ↩︎
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549842/ ↩︎
  5. https://www.healthline.com/health/chilblains#symptoms ↩︎
  6. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/chilblains; https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/skin-hair-and-nails/chilblains; https://torbayandsouthdevon.nhs.uk/uploads/22254.pdf ↩︎
  7. https://torbayandsouthdevon.nhs.uk/uploads/22254.pdf ↩︎