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A common winter foot problem

It’s always about this time of the year I am reminded that its winter by my feet! As a podiatrist, I am not afraid to admit that I suffer with that annual problem of chilblains. So, what are they and why do we get them?

Chilblains are an inflammatory condition of the skin which is triggered by prolonged exposure to cold and damp conditions. I usually notice them first when I come in from a cold, damp day in the winter and as my feet begin to warm up the affected toes become itchy, swollen and painful. The chilblains have arrived and the poorly toe has a small red/purple patch on it - the chilblain. They usually last for a week or two and frequently go through stages of soreness and itching when your feet are warm so particularly in bed at night you may feel them throb.

So who gets them? Well, it’s more often women than men, in the young to middle ages. The condition is more common in those with illnesses affecting the blood supply to the hands and feet such as Raynaud’s Phenomenon. They can arise on any cold, exposed part of the skin such as the hands, nose, ears but most often it’s the feet. The strange thing is that chilblains are common in the UK and parts of Northern Europe but are seldom seen elsewhere in the world. In fact, in some countries they are classified as a “rare” disorder. Why is that?

Well, it’s all due to the climate. Despite other countries having cold winters there are fewer chilblains and that is down to the humidity. In the UK and western Europe we are blessed with cold and humid (damp) winters and this is the real recipe for chilblains. In countries with far more lower winter temperatures, well below zero, you don’t see them as the air is less humid. I remember being at a foot conference in America last year and the speaker put up a picture of a chilblain to a group of foot specialists, and it was only the British podiatrists/chiropodists who knew what they were!

So what can I do with them? Once they have occurred there is little you can do with them. When you have them avoiding extremes of temperature will mean they are less itchy. Try not to toast them by the fire or in a hot bath and if you go out in cold weather wear two pairs of warm, wool socks to prevent them getting to cold. Go to the chemist and they have Chilblain creams which may help soothe them when they are itching but generally they just have to run their course. In a few people, they can become problematic and ulcerate, in which case I would suggest seeing your GP or chiropodist/podiatrist for advice.

Keep Warm


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