Chilblains were part and parcel of an Irish childhood for many when I was growing up. Memories of red, itchy, inflamed toes still linger for my generation, but painful, chilblain flash blacks still haunt the generation that went before me.
Now many of you are probably wondering what on earth a chilblain could possibly be. The word is not feared here in America, with very few even being familiar with the term.
One cold winter’s day I was reminiscing with an American friend, and asked her if she ever suffered from chilblains as a child. A flash of fear spread across her face, as if I had asked her if she ever had the plague. She never before had heard of the dreaded CHILBLAIN, but the very word put the fear of God in her.
She was relieved to hear they’re non-contagious, small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to extremely cold temperatures. I have only ever seen chilblains of the toes, but apparently they can appear on fingers, heels, ears and even on the tip of the nose. OUCH!
I was one of the lucky ones in Ireland in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. My little piggies seldom succumbed to the frosty bite of winter’s chilly air, but my poor sister often complained of burning, itchy toes that swelled and turned bright red. Sometimes her poor little piggies were blistered by these notorious chilblains.
Chilblains seldom occur in America, because despite the cold winter temperatures, the air is dry, unlike the cold, damp conditions found in Ireland and the United Kingdom during the winter months. Chilblains were common in my youth, in the days before we had central heating.
Now it’s time for a little technical explanation … after studying physical therapy, I just can’t resist sharing the medical rational behind this winter discomfort.
Chilblains are caused by an abnormal reaction of blood vessels to the cold. As the skin gets cold, blood vessels near the surface get narrower, and then when suddenly exposed to intense heat, the blood vessels near the skin surface grow wider too quickly, and the blood leaks into the surrounding tissue, causing none other than, a chilblain. Warming our freezing toes by an open fire was not a good idea.
Allergy to cold and hives are two diagnoses some American readers have reported, but I think a differential diagnosis of chilblains might be indicated in some cases.
Does anyone remember coming in from the freezing rain, discarding coats and scarves by the door, and ripping off wet shoes and socks to wiggle those freezing piggies by the fire? If you answered yes, then you must be IRISH.
Little did we know we were creating the perfect conditions for a CHILBLAIN ATTACK.
I remember sitting by the cozy fire in the living room, my legs all toasty and warm, mottled red and white from the heat of the fire. We always said we had the ABC’s on our legs when we overheated our skin. I remember trying to convince myself I didn’t need to go upstairs to the bathroom, afraid to face the arctic air of the hallway. You see, when I was young, most houses were heated by an open fire, with no central heating. The living room was the only comfortable room in the house.
At night we snuggled under a layer of wooly blankets and brought our favorite friend to bed – the hot water bottle, hoping to ward off those dreaded chilblains. In my day, if our hot water bottle was too warm at first, we wrapped it in a towel, but nowadays they come with all kinds of fancy covers.
Apparently wearing socks in bed is a better way to prevent chilblains. Our hot water bottle solution only exacerbated the situation, creating more exposure to extreme temperatures. Little did we know! And oh, how I loved my pink hot water bottle. It was made of pink rubber, and had no fancy knitted heart like this modern day hot water bottle pictured below.
Chilblains are now practically a thing of the past. Central heating has ensured most houses have a nice warm, dry atmosphere promoting chilblain free Irish feet.
A few years ago when I took a guided tour of Glenveagh Castle in County Donegal, I learned a neat little fact about its previous aristocratic inhabitants.
Servants were tasked with warming the master’s bed before he retired for the night. No, the poor servant didn’t have to jump in and lie there for a while to warm the sheets.
The task of heating the sheets was accomplished using a special metal bed warmer, which consisted of a copper container, shaped a little like a frying pan. The pan was filled with hot coals from the fire, covered with a finely perforated lid, then placed under the bed covers. A long handle allowed the servant to swish the hot pan over and back across the sheets without burning them. This process also dried out damp beds. I wonder if the gentry suffered from chilblains?????
Anyway, as I snuggle under my comforter each evening, warmed by the soothing warmth of my forced air heating system, I wiggle my pain free toes, and count my blessings. It’s lovely to live in a chilblain free age.
And so, I hope all my American readers have learned a little bit about our Irish winter time ailments of days gone by, and that my Irish readers won’t have any chilblain infested nightmares after reading this little post with a trip down a chilly memory lane.