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Chilblains, Boils and Carbuncles - Three Painful Skin Problems

Updated on February 26, 2015
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honours degree in biology. She enjoys writing about human biology and the science of health and disease.

Chilblains on the toes
Chilblains on the toes | Source

Chilblains, boils and carbuncles are swollen and painful areas on the skin which can make life miserable for the sufferer. Chilblains are red or purple bumps that sometimes appear when the skin warms up after being cold. They generally form on fingers, hands, toes, feet, ears, earlobes and the nose, although they may also appear on the ankles, calves or thighs of horse riders. Some people are prone to developing chilblains while others never get them. A boil, or furuncle, is caused by a bacterial infection in a hair follicle and can appear anywhere on the skin and in anyone. When several neighboring hair follicles are infected the resulting swelling is called a carbuncle. Boils and carbuncles are red to begin with but eventually develop a white centre that is filled with pus. They become more and more painful as the amount of pus increases.

Keep your feet warm with cozy socks to reduce the chance of chilblain development, especially in winter
Keep your feet warm with cozy socks to reduce the chance of chilblain development, especially in winter | Source

A Doctor Discusses Chilblains

Chilblains

Chilblains are sometimes known as pernio or perniosis. The name “chilblain” is derived from the chilled skin that leads to the chilblain formation and from the word “blain”, which is an old term for a swelling or open sore. Chilblains appear several hours after a body part has been chilled and then rewarmed.

Normally, when our body gets cold the blood vessels near the surface of the skin constrict, which reduces blood flow to the skin and decreases heat loss from the body. When the body warms up, the blood vessels in the skin expand and there is increased blood flow to the area. The extra blood provides nutrients to the skin and also cools the body down as heat is radiated out of blood and through the skin to the outside world.

The mechanism of chilblain formation isn't understood very well. It’s thought that in susceptible people the blood vessels in the skin behave abnormally as they constrict in the cold and as they expand in the warmth when the body part changes temperature. The area becomes inflamed as it warms and the expanding blood vessels become leaky, allowing fluid and materials to leave the blood vessels.

Chilblains are most likely to form if the skin is warmed rapidly, such as when a person sits close to a hot fire after coming in out of the cold. They tend to occur in cold and damp environments and are most common in the autumn and winter. They are found more frequently in children and the elderly than in other age groups. More women suffer from chilblains than men. People with circulatory problems are also more susceptible to developing chilblains, although even apparently healthy people can be affected. Chilblains sometimes run in families.

An Experience With Chilblains

Don't warm a chilled body part in front of a fire if you have a tendency to develop chilbains.
Don't warm a chilled body part in front of a fire if you have a tendency to develop chilbains. | Source
Keep fingers warm with gloves or mittens to avoid chilblains.
Keep fingers warm with gloves or mittens to avoid chilblains. | Source

Chilblains Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Symptoms

Chilblains are red or purple patches of skin that are inflamed and usually swollen. They are painful and may produce an intense itching or burning sensation. They sometimes form blisters or produce dry skin with cracks as they dry out. Although they are often very unpleasant, chilblains generally don't cause any permanent damage and aren't a serious health problem. However, severe chilblains may develop ulcers (open sores with skin breakdown), which can become infected.

Treatment

If you develop chilblains and you've never experienced them before, you should ask your doctor or a pharmacist for the name of a cream or lotion that will reduce itching and pain. Try to avoid scratching the itchy area to prevent damaging the skin. Padding over chilblains helps to protect them from pressure. Most people find that their chilblains disappear after a week or two.

If chilblains last for a long time or disappear and then recur you should see a doctor, since they may have formed due to an underlying health problem. For example, people with diabetes or Raynaud's disease (also called Raynaud's syndrome, or simply Raynaud's) have an increased risk of developing chilblains. If a chilblain develops an ulcer or an infection it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Prevention

It's easier to prevent chilblains than to treat them. To reduce the chance of chilblain development it's helpful to avoid extreme temperature changes and to wear thick gloves, socks, hats, scarves and other protective clothing in cold or wet weather. Shoes should fit well, since the friction created by ill-fitting shoes can lead to chilblain development in susceptible people. The body should be warmed gradually after being chilled. If you tend to develop chilblains, don't warm yourself in front of a fire or heater or with the aid of a heating pad or a hot water bottle. Other strategies that may help are to follow a healthy diet and exercise regularly in order to improve circulation. Avoid smoking, since nicotine constricts blood vessels.

A skin boil or furuncle
A skin boil or furuncle | Source

Boils and Carbuncles

A boil is generally caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, which often live on our skin. If the bacteria get into a hair follicle (the tube in the skin from which a hair emerges) the follicle and nearby skin tissue may develop an infection.

At first a boil is a red, warm and firm bump that hurts when touched. The boil gradually becomes filled with a thick liquid called pus, which contains dead white blood cells, bacteria, tissue debris, proteins and serum. At this point it becomes softer and more painful. It also develops a white or yellow centre, or "head". If several hair follicles next to each other are infected there may be a group of boils, with each boil having its own head. The group is called a carbuncle.

A boil or carbuncle can develop anywhere on the skin, but the most commonly affected areas are the face, the neck, the armpits, the thighs and the buttocks. Anyone can develop boils, but people with impaired immune systems are especially susceptible to boil development. Regular washing reduces the buildup of bacteria on the skin and reduces the chance of a boil appearing.

Boil Information from a Doctor

Staphylococcus aureus is a common cause of boils. The bacterial cells in this photo have been magnified 20,000 times. False colour has been added to the photo.
Staphylococcus aureus is a common cause of boils. The bacterial cells in this photo have been magnified 20,000 times. False colour has been added to the photo. | Source
Care must be taken with towels and washcloths when someone in a home has a boil  in order to prevent the transportation of skin bacteria from one person to another.
Care must be taken with towels and washcloths when someone in a home has a boil in order to prevent the transportation of skin bacteria from one person to another. | Source

Treating a Boil

Small boils can be treated at home. A boil mustn't be squeezed or pierced (lanced) to let the fluid out, except by a doctor, because these treatments can cause the infection to spread. Instead, a warm and wet washcloth should be placed over the affected area for at least ten minutes at a time and for several times a day. Multiple washcloths should be used during a treatment so that the boil is continually being covered with moist heat.

The heat on top of a boil increases blood flow to the area. This is helpful since the blood carries white blood cells and antibodies that can fight the bacteria. The warm soaking will eventually cause the boil to open and release its pus, which will relieve the pain. Once the fluid in a boil has drained the body can heal the area itself. The boil should be washed regularly once it has opened and covered with a sterile dressing between washes.

It's important to prevent the transfer of bacteria in a boil to other parts of the skin or to other people. Hands should be washed thoroughly after treating a boil, especially since Staphylococcus aureus can cause food poisoning. Washcloths and towels mustn't be shared with other people and should be washed in very hot water before being used again. Sheets and clothing that come into contact with the boil should also be washed in hot water. Dressings must be disposed of carefully.

There are some boils and carbuncles that need medical attention. You should ask for a doctor's advice if a boil is very large or if it doesn't disappear within two weeks. You should also seek medical help if you have numerous boils or if a boil is located on your face or spine. If other symptoms are present, such as a fever, chills, fatigue, red lines extending from the boil or swollen lymph nodes, or if you feel unwell, it's important to visit your doctor very soon.

Like chilblains, boils and carbuncles are unpleasant but generally minor problems. Occasionally these skin ailments can be more serious, however, so they should always be treated with care and watched carefully.

© 2011 Linda Crampton

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    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for the great information on chilblains and boils Alicia. Not a cheerful subject, but one that is useful to know about

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and the comment, CMHypno. No, it's not a cheerful subject, but unfortunately some people do suffer from chilblains, boils or carbuncles. I think these problems are interesting, even thought they're not pleasant conditions!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      I have never suffered from chilblains, Alicia, but I have eaten chitlins.

      Fascinating information but I had to wash my hands right after reading.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the funny comment and for the information too, drbj. I had to look up what "chitlins" are on the Internet. Very interesting!

    • natures47friend profile image

      natures47friend 5 years ago from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand.

      This is great information. My friend (no...not me...I have never had a boil or chilblains) has had boils on her behind, they healed and now she has more on her stomach and the front of her thighs. She refuses to go to the doctor (they spend enough on takeaways) so she went to a natural shop and spent a lot on honey to put on the boils and olive leaf stuff. She is tired as had to go back to work as the oldest is off to varsity next year and the two middle kids are going to private schools. No one seems to be able to tell her she needs antibiotics to heal it quickly, not even her husband...have you heard this before....she says she has been really ill with it...I give up..

      My daughter had a boil a few years back, went to the doctor, got cream and antibiotics. I was on her upper back so when it popped she could lean forward and it would ooze. Lovely subject, but glad you wrote about it!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, natures47friend. Thanks for the comment. While I was doing research for this hub I learned about a person who had boils on many parts of their body. It's really important to see a doctor in this situation. Multiple boils and feeling ill are definite signs that medical help is needed. I hope that your friend eventually accepts the advice from you and her husband!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 years ago from America

      Boils and carbuncles can be terrible and painful. I still have a scar from a carbuncle I had in my eyebrow.

      Lots of good information in this hub.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, moonlake. I'm so lucky that I've never had a boil or a carbuncle, and I hope I don't get one in the future! It sounds like you had a very unpleasant experience.

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