Understanding Chilblains

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by Azra Hussain

Chilblains often confused with frostbite and trench foot is an ailment which occurs when skin is exposed to cold air and then suddenly reheated. In this condition, the capillaries present in the skin get inflamed, causing itching, redness, swelling and blistering. Even though chilblains is usually idiopathic (spontaneous) in nature, it can sometimes be a symptom of a serious underlying disease like lupus or Reynaud’s disease. Chilblains is a seasonal illness, with most patients reporting recurrences every year during winter. It clears up in up to two to three weeks, especially if the weather gets warmer. A chilblain does not usually leave scars of any sort, but can cause infections if left unaddressed.

Symptoms

  • red patches in affected areas (usually hands, feet, nose, face)
  • blistering and dryness
  • burning sensation and itching
  • pain in affected area
  • skin discolouration (red to blue)
  • swelling and ulcers

Prevention

  • avoid sudden temperature changes (very cold to very hot)
  • wear layers of warm, loose-fitting clothes
  • avoid tight-fitting clothes
  • have a balanced diet low in inflammatory foods and high in vitamins
  • exercise regularly to improve circulation
  • avoid smoking or consuming alcoholic drinks

Causes

The real cause of chilblains is still unknown, but it is considered to be an abnormal reaction of the integumentary system to sudden changes in the temperature. Warming the skin up, directly after exposure to cold, causes the capillaries in the skin to expand suddenly, which causes compression and leads to blood leaking in the tissue.

Risk factors

  • Factors that can increase an individual’s risk of developing chilblains are:
  • Their sex. Statistics show that women are more likely to suffer from chilblains in comparison to men or children.
  • Their weight. People who weight less than is normal for their height have a higher risk of developing chilblains.
  • The climate of the place they are living in. People who live in humid or cold regions are more likely to develop chilblains.

Treatment

Chilblains usually gets better on its own, but a doctor should be consulted if the pain is severe and the swelling does not clear up after over one month. It should be noted that the healing process may take a while for someone suffering with diabetes or very poor circulation.

Home remedies

  • Although chilblains usually clear up on its own, there are some organic, easy solutions that can help reduce the symptoms:
  • Drink hot chocolate or herbal tea. This causes the entire body to heat up slowly and indirectly, which instead of worsening the symptoms can actually speed up the healing process.
  • Chop up onions and rub them on affected areas. Onion juice contains quercetin, which is an anti-inflammatory soothing agent. This can help in reducing the burning sensation that comes with chilblains.
  • Massage warm oil into your skin. Warm a mixture of a few drops of peppermint essential oil and olive oil and massage it into the affected area to soothe and reduce inflammation. Olive oil is high in monosaturated fats and antioxidants which nourish and heal the skin and peppermint oil has a cooling sensation and anti-inflammatory properties which make it one of the best essential oils for pain and inflammation.
  • Soak affected area in a warm water bath containing Epsom salt. Although the soothing benefits of Epsom salt have not been scientifically validated, it has been a remedy that has stood the tests of time.
  • Keep skin clean and moisturised. It is important to hydrate your skin in order to heal it. A medicated cream or an unscented lotion should be applied liberally on the affected are after cleansing it with a mild soap-based cleanser. This with not only prevent spreading of bacteria, but will reduce the pain and blistering.

It is important to note that if the symptoms occur for a longer period of time, i.e. over a month, a doctor should be consulted.

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