Chilblains: What causes it?

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Chilblains: What causes it?

Question

What causes chilblains? Is chilblains the same as frostbite?

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Answer

No, chilblains (pernio) is not the same as frostbite. Chilblains is inflammation of the small blood vessels in the skin in response to cold but above-freezing temperatures. This results in red, swollen skin — usually on the face, ears, fingers and toes — which appears several hours after exposure to cold. You may also experience an itchy, burning sensation in the affected skin. Sometimes chilblains progresses to blisters and even open sores.

The cause of chilblains isn't known. But blood tests in some people with chilblains may reveal abnormal proteins that tend to sludge in cold temperatures.

In chilblains, it's important to slowly rewarm the skin after cold exposure. Treatment may also include:

  • Corticosteroid creams to relieve itching and swelling
  • Medications to improve circulation
  • Keeping any sores clean and protected with sterile dressings

An episode of chilblains usually clears up within seven to 14 days. To prevent chilblains, avoid or limit your exposure to cold, such as by dressing warmly and covering your head and all exposed skin when you go outside in cold weather.

Chilblains

Photo of chilblains

Chilblains is a reaction to cold exposure that causes red, swollen skin. The cause isn't known.

Last Updated: 11/28/2006
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