What Are Chilblains? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN, WHNP-BC, FAANP
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Chilblains are a rare inflammatory skin condition. They typically occur after prolonged exposure to damp and cold temperatures. Chilblains usually develop in your fingers and toes, but they may appear on your face or legs. Chilblains are usually not serious, but without treatment, they can cause serious complications. Some people may have a higher risk of developing chilblains, in particular, people who have circulation issues.

This article explains what the chilblain condition is, why it happens, its potential complications if left untreated, and how to take care of it.

What are chilblains?

A person's toes with their fingers resting on them
Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United

Chilblains, also known as pernio, are small patches that can appear on your skin after you spend time in the cold. These small patches can itch, and they usually go away on their own within a few weeks.

They typically appear on your toes and fingers. However, they may also appear on your face or legs.

Chilblains typically turn your skin red or purple. If you have dark skin, it may be more difficult to visualize chilblains. However, swelling may be more noticeable.

What are the symptoms of chilblains?

Chilblains usually appear as a change in the color of your skin. On lighter skin, the area where you develop chilblains may look red, blue, or purple.

You may also typically have small bumps developing on your skin in the same area. This is a skin reaction to cold exposure.

Chilblains usually develop within 24 hours after your skin’s exposure to the cold. If the lesions on your skin blister or ulcerate, you may experience the following:

  • a burning sensation
  • itchy skin
  • tenderness

Prolonged dampness or coldness may also cause some changes in the shape, texture, or color of your nails.

Read about other causes of itching skin.

Chilblains can cause swelling and discoloration of the fingers.

Chilblains can cause swelling and discoloration of the fingers.

© Waikato District Health Board

Chilblains can cause swelling and discoloration of the toes.

Chilblains can cause swelling and discoloration of the toes.

© Waikato District Health Board

What causes chilblains?

Chilblains are more common during winter as they mainly result from a cold and damp environment. Cold sensations cause the blood vessels to get smaller, particularly those in your toes and fingers. This can make circulation more difficult in those areas of your body.

Warming your body causes the blood vessels to expand again. At this point, your blood will start rushing to your fingers and toes again. As such, warming too quickly can cause pain and swelling.

Other underlying conditions, such as lupus erythematosus, may cause chilblains.

Risk factors

Chilblains are rare. However, some people may have a higher risk of developing chilblains than others. This includes people who have:

  • lupus
  • conditions that impact blood circulation
  • history of chilblains in their family
  • low body weight or an imbalanced diet
  • frequent exposure to cold temperatures or damp conditions
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon, a condition that affects blood circulation in certain parts of the body, in particular fingers and toes

People who smoke or vape may also have a higher risk of chilblains. Cigarettes and e-cigarette liquids typically contain nicotine, a chemical that constricts blood vessels.

Wearing tight shoes can also compromise the regular blood circulation in your feet. Wearing tight shoes in the cold can increase the risk of developing chilblains on your toes.

How are chilblains diagnosed?

To diagnose chilblains, your doctor will typically perform a physical examination. They’ll ask if you’ve been exposed to cold temperatures recently and when you started experiencing any pain, swelling, or changes in skin color.

They may also recommend a few lab tests. For example, they may collect a blood sample for a complete blood count and check your antibody levels.

How are chilblains treated?

The initial treatment for chilblains involves keeping any affected part of the body away from the cold. If you have chilblains, avoid exposure to cold and keep additional clothing, such as gloves or socks, available in case they’re necessary.

Avoiding smoking can help your blood circulation and may improve your recovery.

Prescription topical lotions, vasodilators, or calcium channel blockers may help improve your chilblains.

What are the complications of chilblains?

Depending on how severe your chilblains are and how often you get them, you may have a risk of developing further complications. Chilblain lesions are rarely severe. However, breakdowns in your skin can cause infections. Frequent problems with blood circulation can lead to tissue death, also known as necrosis.

Complications of chilblains may also include:

  • ulcers on the skin
  • infection due to blisters or scratched skin
  • scarring
  • permanent change of skin color

What are home remedies for chilblains?

To improve your chilblains, keep your body warm, especially in areas affected by chilblains.

To avoid any infection, resist scratching your itchy skin. If you scratch your skin, you may open sores that can allow bacteria to enter your body.

You can also explain your situation to your pharmacist. They may recommend a calamine lotion to improve your itching.

Other frequently asked questions

Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN, has reviewed these questions people frequently asked about chilblains.

What’s the difference between chilblains and Raynaud’s phenomenon?

A person with Raynaud’s phenomenon may experience changes in the color of their skin, tingling or numbness, or a burning sensation in the affected areas. This happens because Raynaud’s phenomenon causes the blood vessels in the body’s extremities to narrow, restricting the blood flow. Chilblains are due not just to the constricting of blood vessels but the rapid expansion of them warming up after cold exposure.

Chilblains, similar to Raynaud’s phenomenon, cause changes in the color of your skin. However, chilblains may also cause swelling, itchiness, and blisters.

Who is prone to chilblains?

People with blood circulation conditions, frequent exposure to cold temperatures, low body fat, or an imbalanced diet may have a higher risk of developing chilblains.

What should you not do with chilblains?

If you have chilblains, you shouldn’t scratch your skin. You also avoid cold exposure and make sure to keep your body warm.


Chilblains typically develop after exposure to cold temperatures for a prolonged period of time. Sometimes, lupus may cause chilblains.

Chilblains usually affect your fingers or toes, but they may also affect your face or legs.

If you have chilblains, you may experience pain and swelling in the affected parts of your body. Your skin may also feel very itchy. However, it’s important to avoid scratching, which can create open sores and lead to bacterial infection. Your doctor and pharmacist can recommend topical lotions or other aids to calm the itchiness.

People with reduced blood circulation, lupus, a family history of chilblains, or frequent cold exposure may have a higher risk of chilblains.

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Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN, WHNP-BC, FAANP
Last Review Date: 2023 Jan 30
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