Chilblains are reddish-blue discolorations of the skin resulting in burning, itching and pain and usually affecting the toes, fingers and backs of the legs. They can be accompanied by swelling and when severe can ulcerate. They’re caused by exposure to cold, which is why you are more likely to develop them in the winter. They affect more women than men and more young women than old.
What appears to happen is that the blood flow through the body, especially to the extremities – fingers, toes and ears – is interrupted as the small blood vessels constrict in the tissues of the sufferer. This is a natural occurrence, as the body automatically supplies less blood to the skin surface in order to retain essential heat deep within the tissues (for the body to function properly, the kidneys, the heart and particularly the brain and the blood have to keep a constant temperature of around the normal 37°C/98.4°F mark).
But with chilblain sufferers this natural defence mechanism causes problems. Those small vessels remain closed up tightly for longer than usual. When fingers or toes are exposed to warmth, the previously under-supplied tissues come ‘alive’ again as the blood returns to them. Then the body’s normal processes react to any damage that’s been done. The normal pain that is felt when not enough oxygen gets to the tissue – as with angina of the heart – is not felt when the tissues are very cold, because the nerves are also affected by the cold and do not function properly. When they warm up again and the numbness goes, pain is experienced because the tissues have become more alkaline as they have survived in the absence of an adequate supply of oxygen. That’s what causes the pain and itching of chilblains until the local ‘chemistry’ is restored to normality.
When you get chilblains for the first time, or if they are severe, consult your doctor in order to rule out any more serious problem. Raynaud’s Phenomenon, for example, has similar symptoms to chilblains – it is a condition of the hands, fingers and feet which affects people who are unduly sensitive to cold and can result in the tissues themselves becoming permanently harmed.
Treat chilblains by covering them with a loose, dry dressing such as gauze and, if you wish, applying a soothing antiseptic cream. A vapour rub may help increase blood flow, as the rubbing stimulates the circulation. There is also some evidence that one of the B vitamins – nicotinic acid – helps to prevent chilblains.
If you are prone to chilblains, take particular care in cold weather. Dress up snugly in several layers of thin clothing to help insulate your body, and always wear a hat. Probably the best preventive measure of all is to find ways of keeping the extremities warm. Cosy socks and gloves are a must. And why not try battery-heated ones? You can buy them from the Raynaud’s Association Trust (address on
You can also improve the circulation in your hands by waving your arms about – movements like those of a cricket bowler are the most effective.
Even if your feet or hands become really cold, never warm them on a radiator, in front of a fire or directly on a hot water bottle – this will only cause you even more pain. Always warm your hands or feet up slowly, perhaps by putting them into lukewarm water.
Bengue’s Balsam, Chilblain Cream, Zam-Buk Ointment, Mentholatum Vapour Rub, Snow-fire, Sudocrem
Apis. Mel., Pulsatilla, Tamus Ointment Herbal Remedies