Fingers or Toes Swelling: What are Chilblains and How to Avoid Them This Winter


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It’s that time of year again when the low temperatures are making our feet feel frozen, numb, and cold. All you want to do is find warmth in a nice hot shower, electric blanket, hot water bottle, or heater. You may not know it yet, but sometimes exposing your feet to extreme changes in temperatures can cause chilblains. Chilblains present as itchy and painful red lumps on your toes that can drive you up the wall!

What are chilblains? Chilblains are small itchy, red swellings on the skin, which can be painful. Chilblains are a reaction to severe cold weather when our capillaries shrink to keep the warmth of our blood close to our bodies and not close to the skin where heat is lost. When we rewarm the feet too quickly, this can lead to leakage of fluid and blood into the toes leading to chilblains.

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The fluid and blood in the tissue can cause redness and cause irritation and itching and sometimes they can break down to become a small ulcer prone to infection.

Why do chilblains occur?

Chilblains are medically known as perniosis. They are a reaction of the skin when it is exposed to cold and then warm temperatures. When the skin gets cold, the blood vessels near the surface become narrower. If the skin is then exposed to heat, the blood vessels become wider.

When this happens too quickly, the blood vessels near the surface of the skin are unable to handle the sudden increase in blood flow. This causes the blood to leak into the surrounding tissue, which leads to swelling and itchiness – both signs of chilblains.

You can also get chilblains from wearing tight shoes, as it may constrict the blood vessels, thus hampering the blood supply to the extremities.

How can you prevent chilblains?

If you are susceptible to chilblains, try to avoid exposure to cold as much as possible. Wear clothing that protects your feet, hands, and ears from the cold. Warm footwear, gloves, leg warmers, or long socks and scarves can help, too.

Wear woolen or cotton socks to allow your feet to “breathe”. Soak your hands and feet in warm water once or twice a week. This helps reduce any swelling or inflammation and also improves blood circulation.

Stay active: exercising helps in improving blood circulation. Take plenty of fluids, including tea and coffee. A nutritious diet and supplement of vitamin C will help in maintaining the moisture of the skin.

Keep sudden temperature changes to a minimum – when coming back from the cold, do not expose susceptible areas to sudden warmth, as it may trigger chilblains.

Stop smoking, as nicotine causes the blood vessels to constrict, which can make chilblains worse.

After taking bath, dry your hands and feet completely and moisturize them with an emollient (a cream that makes the skin soft) thoroughly to avoid cracking. Avoid wearing tight shoes and boots as they can further constrict the blood vessels and restrict circulation to your toes and feet.

Before venturing out into the cold, warm up shoes and socks on the radiator. Make sure your shoes are dry before you wear them. If your feet are already cold, make sure your shoes aren’t overly hot. Remember, the idea is to avoid temperature change.

Chilblains often get better on their own after a week or two without treatment. You can apply a soothing lotion, such as calamine, to reduce the itching. But if the chilblains keep occurring again, or get filled with pus, then you must seek medical help.

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