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What is Pernio?

By Jacquelyn Gilchrist
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Pernio, also known as chilblains or perniosis, is an abnormal, inflammatory reaction of small blood vessels in the skin. Inflammation can occur as the body warms up rapidly after exposure to cold temperatures. The condition appears as small patches of red, itchy skin, which may later turn bluish. Typically, pernio is not a serious medical condition that responds well to treatment.

When a person is exposed to cold temperatures, the small blood vessels in the body constrict. People who then warm themselves up rapidly by standing in front of a heater or taking a hot shower will often heat the skin up too rapidly. While the smaller blood vessels expand with warmer temperatures, the larger blood vessels cannot cope with the sudden change. This results in blood leakage into the nearby tissues, causing pernio to develop.

Those who have never experienced pernio before may at first be under the impression that they have a skin disease. Some of the symptoms are similar, such as itchiness, burning, and pain. The skin may also blister and become slightly swollen. Patients will notice that while at first the skin turns red, hours later it can turn blue. Those who cannot sufficiently alleviate their symptoms with a regular lotion should see a doctor, however patients who also have diabetes or poor circulation should see a doctor right away.

The doctor will likely prescribe a corticosteroid cream to be applied to the affected areas of skin, in order to alleviate both itching and swelling. Sometimes, the patient will also take a blood pressure medication, to help expand the blood vessels. While there are no tests specifically for pernio, the doctor will examine the patient's skin. If he notices that the skin is broken, cracked, or may possibly be infected, he will also disinfect the area to prevent infection.

In addition to using medications and lotions, the patient can alleviate his symptoms by keeping warm, but not too hot. He should avoid any direct sources of heat, such as hand warmers and heating blankets. While it may be tempting to scratch the skin, patients must resist this, as it can encourage infection. Those who do have an infection should follow the doctor's orders to clean the area and apply an antiseptic.

Pernio is not typically a dangerous medical condition. Most patients will notice that their skin clears up within one to three weeks. To prevent a recurrence of pernio, people should dress warmly before going out in cold weather. It is especially important to keep the feet, hands, and face warm. Upon leaving the cold temperatures, people should warm themselves up gradually.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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