Now that the temperatures are reaching their frigid winter levels, you may notice pain in your feet. While some cold-weather foot pain is associated with arthritis, in other cases, chilblains are to blame. Now, don't be alarmed by the scary-sounding name! Chilblains, while painful, are rarely dangerous and typically resolve on their own with proper precautions. Want to know more? Just keep reading. Cold, damp weather is a major risk factor for chilblains: protect yourself by covering up!

What are Chilblains?

Chilblains are simply inflamed small blood vessels in your skin. The inflammation is a response to being repeatedly exposed to cold (not freezing) air. Chilblains can lead to itching, swelling, blistering and red patches on your hands and feet. Other symptoms can include a color change from red to blue on your skin, a burning sensation on your skin and, in extreme cases, ulcers (hard-to-heal, open sores.)

What Causes Chilblains?

The exact cause for this condition isn't actually known, but we suspect that it's your body's abnormal reaction to cold exposure followed by rewarming. When your cold skin heats back up, the small blood vessels under your skin may expand at a faster rate than their larger neighbors enjoy. This can block your blood flow and possibly allow some excess blood to leak into the surrounding tisse (i.e. the tops of your hands and feet.)

So, while we don't know exactly why chilblains occur, we do know some factors that make you more likely to experience the condition. Of course, the number one risk factor for this condition is cold weather--something we've got plenty of here in Illinois--but here's the good news. The dry, frigid cold is not as likely to leave you with a chilblain. It's humid, chilly weather that's more of a problem. We also know that women are more likely than men to get this problem though, again, we don't know exactly why. 

Other risk factors include: 

  • Tight clothing or clothes that leave you open to the cold. Of course, the exposure part of this equation is obvious, but tight clothing in damp weather can also be a problem, since it can trap cold moisture against your skin for extended periods of time. 

  • Low body weight. People with sub-normal BMIs are more at risk of getting chilblains.

  • Circulatory problems. People with poor circulation are typically more sensitive to temperature changes, so they are naturally at higher risk for chilblains.

  • Raynaud's disease. Raynaud's disease cause you to experience spasms in the arteries of your hands and feet, which are also the areas most likely to be impacted by Chilblains. For this reason, individuals with Raynaud's disease are likely to develop chilblains. While symptoms of both conditions can cause changes in your skin color, you should be able to differentiate between symptoms because the color changes are different (red with chilblains, blue to white to red with Reynaud's.)

  • Having an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune diseases like Lupus make you much more vulnerable to chilblains.

Treating a chilblain
If you're starting to freak out about your feet in the winter time, here's the good news: chilblains usually clear up three weeks, especially if you experience a warm-up in the weather. More good news? Chilblains rarely cause permanent damage. In fact, you hardly ever need to see a doctor for this issue: you can typically treat the problem by staying warm and applying lotions with corticosteroids to help manage the itching and inflammation. 

But here's the bad news: once you've had one chilblain, you may experience seasonal recurrences for years to come. And that's not all--in certain cases, especially for those patients, like diabetics, with compromised circulatory health, blisters may become infected and ulcers may develop. For that reason, individuals with neuropathy or weakened circulatory health should always see their doctors if signs of chilblains emerge. 

And, of course, prevention is the best medicine of all: in order to avoid chilblains, simply limit your exposure to the cold, dress warmly and keep skin under cover when the mercury drops! 

Jordana White
Jordana Rothstein White