Chilblains: Symptoms, complications, and treatment

Chilblains, also known as chilblain, pernio, and perniosis are small, itchy swellings on the skin associated with exposure to the cold.

They are not painful at first, but can become painful – they are acral ulcers; ulcers affecting the extremities.

Fast facts on chilblains

Here are some key points about chilblains. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

chilblains are a localized form of vasculitis

full recovery can be expected within a couple of weeks

the best method to avoid chilblains is to wrap up warm

sores and blisters occur only in rare cases

if untreated, they can lead to scarring and ulcers

Symptoms

[Hand covered in snow]
Chilblains are also referred to as pernio or perniosis.

Chilblains generally appear a short while after being in the cold. Symptoms get worse if the individual walks into somewhere warm.

Chilblains signs and symptoms include:

burning and itching sensation, usually in the extremities, such as the feet, hands, nose, or ears

skin of the affected area may change color from red to dark blue and become inflamed (swollen)

sores and blisters may appear (rare)

Doctors say that signs and symptoms will usually go away within a couple of weeks on their own if the patient avoids exposure to cold. More rarely, recovery may take months.

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What are chilblains?

We don’t know exactly what chilblains are, some studies show a localized form of vasculopathy that occur when a predisposed individual is exposed to cold.

Exposure to the cold and damp may damage tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in the skin, resulting in redness, blisters, itching, and inflammation. The itching, swelling, and blistering red patches may occur on the toes, fingers, ears, and nose.

Chilblains most commonly affect women, children, and the elderly. Especially skinny patients may be at higher risk of getting chilblains.

Treatments for chilblains, which consist mainly of topical remedies and medications, are usually effective and the patient makes a full recovery within a couple of weeks. If left untreated though, there is a risk of complications, such as skin ulcers, cracked or broken skin, and infections.

Vulnerable individuals who wrap up warmly, or stay away from the cold as much as possible are much less likely to develop chilblains.

Causes and risk factors

Our blood vessels narrow when exposed to cold. When returning to warmth, the blood vessels expand again. For some people, this change results in blood leaking out of the blood vessels, causing inflammation and chilblain symptoms, especially if the change from cold to warmth is abrupt.

The following groups of people are more susceptible to getting chilblains when exposed to cold:

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