Harvard Women's Health Watch

By the way, doctor: What can I do about chilblains?

Q. I've been diagnosed as having chilblains in the fingers on both hands. What causes chilblains? Is there a cure?

A. Chilblains is a painful condition in which blood vessels respond abnormally to the cold. People living in cold, damp climates are affected the most, and for reasons we don't understand, women are more vulnerable than men. Chilblains occur mainly on the fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, and ears, appearing as red or purplish blotches that may be swollen and itchy. They may even blister or ulcerate. The blotches tend to develop on cold-exposed skin that is warmed too quickly by such actions as rubbing the hands together vigorously in front of a fire or heater.

The cause appears to be damage to tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in the skin. When skin is exposed to cold, the capillaries constrict, and in susceptible people, some may become damaged. When the skin is rewarmed too quickly, they leak blood into the surrounding tissue, causing inflammation. Susceptibility may be increased by poor circulation, anemia, hormonal changes, connective tissue problems, and certain bone marrow disorders. If you have chronic recurring chilblains, your clinician may order laboratory tests or do a biopsy to rule out a systemic illness.

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