Living with Chilblains

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Seven years ago, I was a fresh-faced pre-teen on my first (and only) residential school trip. We went to Aviemore, a town in the north of Scotland renowned for its snowy mountains. We had a great weekend at the hotel, living off pick’n’mix (the hotel food was a case of cold, mushy macaroni cheese or going hungry), drinking J20s, gossiping, room-swapping, snowball-fighting and generally behaving like a pack of twelve-year-olds left to make their own amusement.

Ironically, the worst part of the ski trip was the skiing. The novelty of going up in a cable car was removed by the feeling of being packed like sardines up against big scary people in serious gear, with formidable looking metal poles and goggle-glasses that made them look like bugs. And when we finally got up on the mountains, the conditions were so awful, with blizzards and ice, that I couldn’t feel my brain from the whipping wind, I couldn’t stand for two seconds without falling and more to the point couldn’t see two metres ahead of me. It didn’t help that our instructor was useless, failing to teach us how to stop, turn direction, or even stand without falling. We were all indignant about our lack of pole provision. How were we supposed to maintain any sense of balance? If one of us went down, we grabbed whoever was closest, resulting in a domino-descent of bundling bodies, laughter, crying and billowing snow. Safe to say I came home blue with bruises.

About an hour in, I had given up trying to ski, and was more focused on trying to block out the sense of seething cold that was gnawing into me. The skiing instructor rolled her eyes when I showed her my blue little fingertips. My own fault, of course, for not bringing proper gloves. Instead of heavy-duty snow gloves I’d opted for the pretty sequinned woolly ones from Accessorize. They were fingerless.

Our teacher had apparently been handing out ski gloves at breakfast to the poor souls who didn’t have any, but I think I must have been focused on surreptitiously putting salt in my friend’s drink or something and missed out.

Well, I’ve suffered for that mistake. Since that fateful trip, I’ve been plagued with chilblains. I can deal with the toes – many people get them in their toes. You don’t have to do much with your toes. The fingers, however, are a whole other league of pain. Every year, at the threshold of winter, the dreaded chilblains creep back, like so many electric currents stinging my fingers. Sometimes they’re even there in summer, with the icy threat of air conditioning, or more likely the bitter bite of a Scottish ‘breeze’.

It’s like this: your fingers at first feel deathly numb, and maybe they’ll go bright white, yellow or purple. If you touch them, you can watch the colour burst and fade in a sphere of strange pressure. When they start to warm up again, after some brisk handshaking or running them under luke-warm water, they surge and swell painfully, often going bright red. It’s just this burning that travels relentlessly up and down your nerves. Sometimes I look in the mirror and it’s funny because they’re a completely different colour from the rest of my body, as if I’ve dipped them in paint.

Well, often they stay swollen for weeks, and that’s the worst part. Not only do you have horrible, fat, stumpy fingers, but also you have fingers that struggle to write and type. And then the itchiness. Like so many nerves tingling and writhing beneath your skin, simultaneously so awfully hot and then once again breathlessly cold. I have the hands of death: touching my fingers is like touching ice.

So yes, I’m still wearing gloves in May, and might have to through June and beyond. I apply hand-cream every five minutes to stop my skin cracking, I walk as much as I can and do star-jumps in my room, because they say that boosting circulation and keeping warm is all you can do.

And well, it seems that there is a pretty simple moral to this story: function over fashion. I should’ve listened to my mother and taken the ugly grey ski-gloves over the pretty but useless ones. Ah, but what self-respecting twelve-year-old with an eye for style would have done that? Also, it’s possible that I’d have gotten chilblains anyway. ‘Reynaud’s syndrome’ – which is probably what I’ve developed, checking the symptoms, although I’ve never been diagnosed – is most common among young woman, and usually occurs in the late teens. Check, check – that’s me. So perhaps I’m just unlucky, just dreadfully fated, to suffer the bane and pain of these chilblains. I’m guessing the Aviemore semi-frostbite I experienced didn’t help (permanent nerve damage never does), but I refuse to take all the blame for my condition. I also blame genes – my Mum and my Nan both get chilblains, albeit in their feet.

Reynaud’s doesn’t really have a cure, so I don’t have much option except keeping up the star-jumps, drinking ginger tea and making sure I don’t smoke (nicotine contracts nerve muscles). Let this be a warning to all those who want to go skiing, but also a message to help you appreciate having lovely, slender, warm and normal-coloured fingers! I am a girl with serious hand envy.