Chilblains: Everything You Need to Know

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Chilblains (also known as perniosis) are small bumps or patches of skin that can become inflamed, red, or itchy after you've been exposed to the cold. Unlike skin damage from frostbite, chilblains are a rare inflammatory vascular condition that don't usually cause permanent damage or discoloration.

Not everyone develops chilblains in the cold. This article will review what you can expect if you develop chilblains, what they feel like, how to treat them, and how long it will take them to go away.

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The term "chilblain" has its roots in Latin and Old English words for frostbite, but today these patches of irritation from the cold go by several names, including:

  • Chilblain lupus erythematosus (CHLE)
  • Perniosis
  • Pernio
  • Cold-induced vascular disease

Symptoms

The primary symptoms of chilblains are red, bluish, or purple skin lesions that appear after exposure to cold, damp environments. These patches form because of an abnormal small blood vessel reaction to the cold.

Beyond discoloration, you may experience symptoms like:

Symptoms usually appear 12–24 hours after exposure to the cold and affect the lower legs, toes, feet, hands, and face. Lesions typically resolve in a few weeks but could cause scarring or thickening of the skin that remains for several years.

How Chilblains Form

When small veins and arteries are exposed to cold weather, they tighten up (constrict), which is a common reaction to the cold. In people who get chilblains, as the tissues rewarm, blood leaks out of the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissues. This causes swelling, nerve irritation, and pain.

Risk Factors

There are some known risk factors for developing chilblains, but the causes are sometimes unknown. More women develop chilblains than men, and they usually develop in young adults or middle-aged people, while children and older adults are rarely affected. The most common risk factors are:

Chilblains can develop as a standalone condition or as a secondary symptom of another disease. Lesions associated with chilblains are often confused for symptoms of different diseases, including:

Complications

Chilblains usually resolve on their own but may develop again with exposure to cold temperatures. In most cases, chilblain lesions fade or disappear within weeks, but in rare cases, they can linger for years.

Blister-like lesions that are rubbed or irritated may scab over, form ulcers, or become infected. Chilblains can also cause scarring in people who heal slowly or are continually exposed to the cold.

Treatment

Chilblains typically go away on their own within two to three weeks, and treatment is not usually necessary. Here are some steps you can take to find relief while you wait for them to clear:

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If your pain is severe, if you think you are developing an infection, or if your symptoms haven't improved within one to two weeks, call your provider to discuss additional treatment options.

In severe or complicated cases, a healthcare provider may recommend treatment with medications such as:

  • Afeditab (nifedipine): A blood pressure medication used to improve circulation
  • Topical steroids: Creams applied directly to the affected area, used to treat inflammation
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen)

Prevention

Wearing warm clothing that keeps your skin dry can help prevent chilblains. Quitting smoking and avoiding caffeine can help too since both can impair your circulation and increase your risk of developing chilblains.

Summary

"Chilblains" is the common name for perniosis, a condition in which red, itchy, or inflamed lesions form when you are exposed to cold, damp environments. You may develop chilblains independently or as part of another condition. Treatment isn't usually necessary for chilblains, and they will go away on their own in time. You can prevent these lesions from forming by avoiding the cold and by keeping your skin warm and dry.

A Word From Verywell

Chilblains can be an uncomfortable side effect of cold, damp weather, but they are not usually permanent and rarely require any treatment. If you or someone in your family has developed red or bluish patches after being in the cold, take extra care to dress in waterproof, warm clothing if you plan to be in the cold again.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes chilblains?

    Cold weather causes chilblains. A number of conditions or diseases can increase your chances of developing these lesions, but they can also occur on their own.

  • Will chilblains go away on their own?

    Chilblains usually go away with no treatment at all. However, if you are exposed to the cold for long periods of time or develop an ulcer or infection from a chilblain, chilblains can take months to heal or even leave scars.

  • How long does it take chilblains to go away?

    Chilblains usually appear 12–24 hours after cold exposure and last for a week or two. In rare cases, they may take years to resolve and scars could form in place of the lesions. Healing may take longer if you develop ulcers, infections, or continue to be exposed to the cold after developing chilblains.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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