Chillblains- What is it and how to dodge it this winter

Now that the cooler weather has settled in, we tend to rug up in trackies, Ugg boots, slippers and turn the heater on to keep our bodies warm and cosy. During winter, our feet are often the first parts of our body to feel the cold and it’s natural to want to warm them up as fast as possible. But did you know, going from cold to sudden heat our feet and toes can sometimes not keep up with the changes in temperature?

In podiatry, we come across a condition called Pernio or more commonly known as Chilblains. This is a vasospastic disorder that most often affects our extremities due to them being furthest from the heart. No one knows exactly why it happens or why it affects some people and not others, but in general it is associated with the blood vessels tightening when exposed to the cold and then expanding too quickly when the temperature suddenly heats up. For example, going from a damp/cold environment to straight in front of the heater where it’s nice and toasty.

Chilblains most commonly present as small, red lesions at the tips of the toes or fingers. Chilblains may feel painful, itchy or tingly. In more severe cases the little lesions may develop into blisters or ulcerations. Acute bouts of chilblains can manifest just 12-24 hours after cold exposure. Chronic chilblains may persist even after environment temperatures are more controlled and sometimes they can be related to other conditions such as Raynaud’s Phenomena or Lupus.

So how can we manage our body temperature better to avoid chilblains? It’s all about trying to keep a consistent temperature and changing temperatures gradually. One example I like to refer to is the water in the shower. Ensure before you step into the shower that the water is running warm, not hot, and let the water run that little bit longer before stepping in so the floor tiles in the shower are slightly heated. This helps to reduce the sudden change in temperature. Wearing thick socks made of natural fibres are a great idea as well; especially if you know you are going to be in a cold environment such as the snow. 

If you do happen to get a chilblain or two, there are a variety of ointments for the lesions that can be purchased over the counter at the chemist. These help to restrict the blood flow to reduce redness and itchiness associated with this condition. 

If you’re concerned you may be experiencing some of these symptoms and they won’t settle down, it’s best to book an appointment with your podiatrist for an assessment and further tips and tricks.

Let’s keep those feet happy and healthy!
Emily Dwyer, Podiatrist.