One of the benefits of having children when you are studying the healing plants is there is never a shortage of conditions to figure out how to deal with. I've often come across some unusual names for health problems when reading old herbals (like what the heck was "the king's evil"), but one of the more interesting conditions used to be called "chilblains". I have always been intrigued by the word, but never managed to look it up. I now know all about chilblains though, thanks to my six-year-old and his toes.
This past winter Alden started developing red, swollen toes that itched and sometimes hurt. I began rubbing healing salves and oils on his skin, while trying to research what exactly was going on. I had a feeling it had something to do with the cold, since it was winter and our house is on the cold side (what with the wood stove heat). On top of this, it can require serious negotiation to get my boys to put on socks or slippers on cold mornings. My first attempt to figure out his condition left me baffled. None of the information I found seemed to match his symptoms exactly. Soon his toes healed and he early warmth this March put it out of my head.
Then in April the frosts came again and the house was colder at night. Alden had gotten used to his bare feet again and the red toes made another appearance. Back to the research, and this time I found it...chilblains. It is a condition where cold causes lessened blood flow in toes (sometimes fingers), blood vessels constrict, then warmth caused them to expand and they may crack, causing swelling, itching, redness and sometimes pain. Chilblains were more common before travel by car became common, and folks often had to walk long distances in cold weather. Some folks are more susceptible than others, and my Alden seems to be one.
Keeping the feet warm is important for prevention. But it is also important to let the toes warm up slowly after exposure to the cold, as warming too quickly can aggravate the condition. Herbs that increase circulation, like cayenne and ginger, can be helpful, as well as healing and soothing herbs like calendula, chickweed and plantain. Juliette de Bairacli Levy, in her book Common Herb for Natural Health suggests steeping snowdrop bulbs in beer to treat chilblains (interesting). Soaking the feet in a tea, or making a paste to cover the toes can be helpful.
Chilblains usually heal up just fine in a week or two, but care needs to be taken to prevent cracked skin, blisters, and infection. I feel better that we know what is going on, it always helps to have a name for something. And now I can say, "put on your socks or you'll get the chilblains."