Sometimes the terms chilblains and frostbite are used interchangeably, even though they are two very different things. Chilblains are not dangerous as long as you do not allow them to get infected, but frostbite can lead to severe injury and potential amputation. To prevent frostbite from occurring, you should learn how to tell whether or not you have chilblains or frostbite so that you can know how to treat them appropriately.
Chilblains are similar to frostbite in the sense that they both happen when your skin gets too cold from being exposed to very cold weather conditions. But while chilblains and frostbite do have many things in common, there are also some key differences between them. Read on to learn more about what makes chilblains and frostbite different, as well as how you can tell if you might be dealing with either one of these skin conditions.
What’s the Difference Between Chilblains and Frostbite?
Chilblains, also known as pernio, are fluid-filled blisters that can form on your ears, hands, feet, and nose in response to extreme cold. The condition usually affects people who live in cold weather climates and work outside. Despite the similar appearances of chilblains and frostbite, they’re different conditions with different causes and symptoms. If you start to experience chilblains or frostbite symptoms on your body while in the cold, knowing how to differentiate between the two conditions can help you treat them more effectively and protect yourself from further damage.
The main difference
The difference between chilblains and frostbite lies in how long your skin was exposed to cold weather conditions. When exposed to freezing temperatures for a short period of time, you may experience chilblains; when skin is exposed for long periods of time, you may develop frostbite. The symptoms are very similar but there are small differences that set these conditions apart. Read on to learn more about what causes each condition and how they can be treated.
How to treat them
If you think you have frostbite, immediately put affected body parts in warm water—never heat or massage them. Your injuries are likely to be worse than you think. You can help prevent frostbite by wearing a hat with a hood, mittens, socks, and shoes that provide good insulation from cold surfaces. If you have symptoms of chilblains (intense itching, redness), you may want to take an antihistamine or steroid cream for itching. For chilblains that do not get better after several weeks or become painful, see your doctor right away.
The best way to keep your body warm in cold weather is to stay dry. Never wear cotton in winter! Moisture retention means wet clothes that leave you colder, not warmer. Wear polypropylene next to your skin. If you’re going outside, you should dress like a soldier: Fleece hat, polypropylene gloves, waterproof boots, and waterproof pants with two pairs of socks (make sure one pair is wool or synthetic). Protect yourself from wind chill by wearing an extra layer of clothing that won’t retain moisture when it gets wet. The National Weather Service has a Wind Chill Chart for determining what clothes will help protect you from cold temperatures as well as wind chill.
How long do they last?
Chilblains typically take about two weeks to heal, whereas frostbite can last from a few days to six months depending on how deep your skin has been affected. If you’re in pain or concerned, seek medical help. Frostbitten skin will appear white or grayish in color and will feel cool to touch. In extreme cases, your skin may look waxy. Even if it isn’t severe, it could still cause irreversible damage without proper treatment. Chilblains are extremely painful at first but tend to fade away after several days as long as you take good care of them by staying warm and wearing loose clothing.
Are chilblains contagious?
When chilblains form, it is a direct result of cold temperatures. In order to understand what causes chilblains, you need to first know how they develop. When a person goes outside on a very cold day or evening, he or she can experience chilblains as blood vessels in your hands and feet constrict in response to cold temperatures. However, if you were to continue standing outside in extreme conditions for an extended period of time, blood vessels would begin to damage from reduced oxygen flow that occurs from restricted blood flow.
How common are they?
Though they’re technically two different diseases, chilblains and frostbite are often used interchangeably. There is no exact medical definition of what chilblains are (there are many, including discolored or swollen skin, aching skin, burning sensation in the skin, itching skin), so if you’re looking for more information about them as a whole it can be hard to come by. What we do know is that chilblains have been recorded in everyone from children to adults who live in cold climates; some doctors also consider them to be an acute superficial inflammation of tissues due to changes in temperature.
Can you prevent them from happening again?
There are several different ways you can reduce your risk of chilblains or frostbite. Be prepared with proper cold-weather clothing, start slowly when exercising in cold weather, avoid excessive alcohol consumption to prevent hypothermia, and make sure that you don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk (e.g., do not walk on snow and ice without appropriate footwear). If you experience an episode of chilblains or frostbite, take steps to prevent them from recurring. For instance, wear warm socks in order to keep blood circulating properly. When it comes to frostbite, in particular, it is imperative that you seek medical attention immediately if it has begun to spread beyond a small area so that treatment can begin immediately.
Though both conditions are frost-related skin irritations, chilblains and frostbite are different in terms of symptoms, severity, causes, treatment, and prevention. People with cold hands and feet could have chilblains or frostbite. The only way to know for sure is to see a doctor. Both conditions can be treated at home but if left untreated they could lead to permanent injury. It’s important to spot these two ailments before they get out of hand! If you notice any redness or sores on your skin while outside on a particularly chilly day you may want to get them checked out—no matter how small they seem.