The Science Behind Chilblains: Exploring the Body's Response to Cold Temperatures

Created by Doctor Jane, 6 months ago

Chilblains, also known as pernio or perniosis, are a common condition characterized by the development of small, itchy, and painful red or purple lesions on the skin. They typically occur on the extremities, such as the fingers, toes, heels, and ears, and are caused by the body's abnormal response to cold temperatures. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive overview of chilblains, including its causes, symptoms, treatment options, and preventive measures.

the science behind chilblains exploring the bodys response to cold temperatures


Chilblains occur as a result of the body's exaggerated response to cold temperatures and inadequate circulation in the affected areas. When the skin is exposed to cold temperatures, the blood vessels in the extremities narrow (vasoconstriction) in an attempt to conserve heat and maintain core body temperature. 

However, in individuals susceptible to chilblains, the blood vessels overreact, leading to abnormal blood flow patterns and subsequent inflammation when the affected area is rewarmed.

Risk Factors

Several factors can increase the risk of developing chilblains, including:

Cold exposure: Prolonged exposure to cold and damp environments, particularly without adequate protection, increases the risk.

Poor circulation: Individuals with poor circulation, such as those with peripheral artery disease, Raynaud's phenomenon, or individuals who smoke, have an increased susceptibility to chilblains.

Gender and age: Chilblains are more common in females and typically affect younger individuals, although they can occur at any age.


The primary symptoms of chilblains include:

Red or purple discoloration: Affected areas develop patches of red or purple coloration due to inflammation and dilation of blood vessels.

Itching and burning sensation: The affected skin may be itchy, accompanied by a burning or tingling sensation.

Swelling: Swelling may occur in the affected areas, causing discomfort and tightness.
Pain and tenderness: Chilblains can be painful, especially when pressure is applied or the affected area is exposed to warmth.


Most cases of chilblains resolve on their own within a few weeks, and treatment focuses on symptom management and promoting healing. The following measures can be helpful:

Rewarming the affected area: Gradual and gentle rewarming of the affected area is recommended to avoid sudden temperature changes that can exacerbate symptoms.

Topical creams and ointments: Applying topical corticosteroid creams or ointments can help reduce inflammation and relieve itching. Calamine lotion or creams with menthol may also provide relief.

Avoid scratching: Although it can be challenging, avoiding scratching the affected area is important to prevent secondary infections and promote healing.

Protecting the skin: Keeping the affected areas warm and protected from cold temperatures is essential to prevent further damage. Wearing warm socks, gloves, or using heating pads can help.

Medications: In severe cases, a healthcare professional may prescribe medications, such as vasodilators or calcium channel blockers, to improve blood flow and reduce symptoms.


Preventing chilblains involves taking precautions to minimize exposure to cold and maintaining good circulation. Consider the following preventive measures:

Dressing appropriately: Wear warm clothing and multiple layers when venturing out in cold weather. Pay special attention to protecting the extremities, including the fingers, toes, and ears.

Avoid sudden temperature changes: Gradually acclimate the body to temperature changes to avoid sudden vasoconstriction and subsequent rewarming reactions.
Keep extremities warm: Use appropriate insulation, such as gloves, socks, hats, and earmuffs, to keep the extremities warm in cold environments.

Proper footwear: Wear well-insulated and properly fitting shoes or boots to protect the feet from cold and dampness.

Avoid tight footwear: Tight shoes or boots can restrict blood flow to the feet and increase the risk of chilblains. Opt for footwear that provides enough room for proper circulation.

Moisturize the skin: Regularly moisturize the skin in cold weather to prevent dryness and cracking, which can increase susceptibility to chilblains.

Physical activity: Engage in regular physical activity to promote blood circulation and maintain overall vascular health.

Quit smoking: Smoking damages blood vessels and impairs circulation, making individuals more susceptible to chilblains. Quitting smoking can improve circulation and reduce the risk.

When to Seek Medical Attention

In most cases, chilblains can be managed at home with self-care measures. However, medical attention should be sought if:

  • The symptoms worsen or do not improve after a few weeks.
  • The affected area becomes infected, characterized by increased pain, pus, or spreading redness.
  • The lesions become ulcerated or develop blisters.
  • There are underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes or peripheral artery disease, that require careful management.

Chilblains are a common condition characterized by painful and itchy red or purple lesions that occur due to abnormal vascular responses to cold temperatures. While they usually resolve on their own, proper management and preventive measures can help alleviate symptoms and prevent complications. 

By taking precautions to protect the extremities from cold and maintaining good circulation, individuals can reduce the risk of developing chilblains. If symptoms persist or worsen, it is important to consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation and guidance.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not replace professional medical advice. Please consult a healthcare professional for specific guidance related to your individual circumstances.

Answered by Doctor Jane, 6 months ago