Srinagar: There is a look of happiness in the eyes of 75-year-old Hajra Begum as she gives finishing touches to a small pair of knitted woolen socks for her little granddaughter.
The treasured woolen gift is being spun for the little girl as she has lately developed itchy red lumps on her toes, or “Shuh” in local parlance.
The piercing cold of Chillaikalan increases the severity of skin problems associated with the extreme cold, the major irritant being the itchy and swollen feet or “Shuh” (frostbite or chilblains).
“Shuh was a constant problem in the winters of yore,” Begum while recollecting her youth in the valley said. “There were not many skin creams or medicines to apply back then. In such a situation some useful home remedies came handy.”
Begum narrated how her mother preserved the water in which she boiled dried vegetables or “hokh syun” (stocked for the winter in Kashmir) during cooking.
“The same water was used to wash off my swollen feet,” she recalled. “It came as a quick care to ‘Shuh’.”
In absence of this water, Begum said, another remedy included dipping feet in a container filled with warm saline water. “Salt was avoided if one had a fungal infection between the toes (locally known as ‘Zael’).”
To heal the dry skin and cracked heels, Begum says some drops of ‘oum teel’ (mustard oil) were applied on the hands and feet.
While Begum’s chronicles of classic cold give one peek into those bygone harsh winters, many Kashmiri households have already resorted to the old methods to save their skin during the ongoing cold season in the valley.
Apart from the resurgent longing for Kanger and hukh syun in some urban pockets of Kashmir, many households are using the traditional treatment to keep their skin healthy.
“My mother majorly resorted to ‘Koshur ilaaj’ this winter by making some drinks and ointments mandatory to save my skin from the harsh and hostile weather,” Aadil Amin, a teenager from the uptown area of Chanpora said.
Amid the deep and frosty weather, Aadil had to increasingly use salt and oil treatment to keep frostbites away.
“Since my mother believes that most of these skin drugs are ineffective in countering the cold, she made a routine for me and my siblings to wash our feet with hot and saline water before going to bed every night.”
Along with the early-morning mustard oil massage, Aadil said, the nighttime hot-water washing helped prevent skin cracks, dryness, and swellings.
However, terming these measures a bit far-fetched at a time when the drug-dominated market of the valley remains stockpiled with the best cold creams, many are denouncing these old measures as a sign of a “medieval mindset”.
Dermatologist Dr. Faizan Shah said the severity of the skin cases can increase because of the extreme temperature.
“I have observed chilblains to be much more common as compared to frostbite,” Dr. Shah continues.
“Chilblains occur due to an abnormal susceptibility to cold and its development is related to cold and damp conditions; occurring even at above-zero temperatures.”
A recent study by GMC, Srinagar, titled, ‘Prevalence of cold dermatoses in Kashmir Valley’ shows that the following groups were more vulnerable to the development of these cold-induced skin disorders.
“Children were the most likely to develop perniosis or chilblains among all age groups, with more than 65 percent of our cases occurring in the pediatric age group. Females were also found to be more likely to suffer from cold-related skin problems as compared to males,” the study shows.
A genetic background for the abnormal susceptibility to cold, the study stresses, is supported by the clustering of cases among family members.
“Occurrence of similar lesions in one or more family members was seen in approximately 60 percent of our cases. Further, people who have a low body mass index (BMI) and thus a lower quantity of body fat, are significantly more likely to develop cold-related injuries,” it says.
Dr. Shah said the most important factor in the prevention of cold-related skin disorders involves maintaining the temperature at a comfortable level by the use of ACs, central heating, or the traditional ‘Hamam’
“Dipping your hands and feet in warm water for a couple of minutes several times a day goes a long way in keeping the skin warm; even after removing your hands from the water,” he says. “Thick socks and gloves can also help to keep the extremities warm and thus prevent cold-related injuries.”