Chilblains - Causes

What are chilblains and what causes them?

Chilblains (sometimes called pernio) are small, itchy, painful, red swellings on the skin. Chilblains are caused by an abnormal skin reaction to cold. They tend to occur on 'extremities' that easily become cold. That is, your toes, fingers, nose and earlobes. However, other areas of skin sometimes develop chilblains when they become cold. For example, your heels, lower legs and thighs (especially in horse riders).

Chilblains are quite common. They can occur at any age. They are most common in children and in older people. They also occur more in women than in men. It is not clear why some people get chilblains when their skin gets cold. The tiny blood vessels under the skin narrow (constrict) when the skin becomes cold. The blood supply to areas of skin may then become very slow. As the skin re-warms there is some leakage of fluid from the blood vessels into the tissues. In some way this causes areas of inflammation and swelling, leading to chilblains.

The speed (rate) of temperature change may play a part. Some people get chilblains if they warm up cold skin too quickly. For example, with a hot water bottle or by sitting very close to a fire.

What makes chilblains more likely?

Most chilblains occur in people who are otherwise healthy. However, some factors may make some people more prone to chilblains, such as:

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  • Chilblains; NICE CKS, August 2013 (UK access only)
  • Gordon R, Arikian AM, Pakula AS; Chilblains in Southern California: two case reports and a review of the literature. J Med Case Rep. 2014 Nov 22 8:381. doi: 10.1186/1752-1947-8-381.
  • Chilblains; DermNet NZ
  • Almahameed A, Pinto DS; Pernio (chilblains). Curr Treat Options Cardiovasc Med. 2008 Apr 10(2):128-35.
  • Ozmen M, Kurtoglu V, Can G, et al; The capillaroscopic findings in idiopathic pernio: is it a microvascular disease? Mod Rheumatol. 2013 Sep 23(5):897-903. doi: 10.1007/s10165-012-0768-9. Epub 2012 Sep 24.
Author:
Dr Mary Harding
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Hannah Gronow
Document ID:
4583 (v42)
Last Checked:
03 July 2016
Next Review:
03 July 2019

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.