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Posted: Wed, 07 January 2015, 21:44

The Cold Winter & Chilblains

At this time of year, the cold damp weather can result in a number of ailments and conditions that always seem to make the winter longer and harder to deal with. One of these conditions, is chilblains.

Chilblains are small red, itchy swellings that occur as your body reacts to cold temperatures, particularly if you go straight from the cold to in front of a direct heat source such as the fire or radiator. They are most common on the toes, heals and fingers but can also occur on the nose and ears. The burning sensation and itch only intensifies when you go into a warm room or into bed.

Chilblains occur, because in cold conditions, small veins and arteries in the skin get narrower to keep blood warm. In sudden warmth after cold conditions, the small surface blood vessels in the extremities can't handle the fast expansion and blood flow. The result is swelling with burning and itching sensations.

Chilblains will normally resolve themselves in a week or two, but most people will probably want something to treat them before that. If not looked after, the skin can break and the chilblain can become infected. If the skin is unbroken, a mild topical steroid cream such as Cortopin 1% or HC45, applied up to twice daily for up to seven days will help reduce the swelling and itching feeling. Other ointments such as White Tiger Balm (cooling), Lanolin Ointment or a product called Snowfire that contains natural essential oils, can be useful. These can be massaged into the area gently to help soothe the chilblain and ease the burning feeling. People who have circulation problems and smokers are more prone to chilblains. As such, it is a good idea to try keep fingers and feet warm and moving to aid circulation. Tight shoes and socks should also be avoided as they can prevent blood flow to the feet, so instead try to wear warm but loose fitting socks and shoes. Wearing warm gloves will also help.

If you have been out in the cold for a prolonged period of time, try to warm up the extremities gradually rather than immediately. A common cause is going from the cold with damp feet into the car and having the car heaters blowing hot air directly onto the feet straight away. If you are a diabetic, then you should take extra care with your feet, as you may be more prone to complications. Preventing your feet from getting too cold in the first place is the best way of preventing chilblains.

While we have so far this winter been spared the extreme cold of the last few winters, we have still had numerous evenings and nights with sub-zero temperatures. It is important to stay warm inside and outside of the house, particularly for older people. Try to keep at least one room in the house at a temperature of about 18-21oC. If you wrap up and wear several thin layers of clothing it will be more beneficial than one thick layer. A hat, gloves and a scarf will make a big difference in keeping you warm. A hot water bottle or electric blanket will help at night. If possible, stay inside during a very cold period if you have heart or respiratory problems. If you are inside for a prolonged period, try to move around at least every hour as even this light exercise will help keep your body warm. If you have elderly friends and neighbours, check in on them and make sure they're warm enough and have enough food and medicines if they are inside during very cold weather.