As the cold continues to linger and shiver life, the winter-induced skin ailments have once again reared their ugly heads in the valley. To ward off these cold demons, many are resorting to good old methods to save their skin.
The comforting click of the knitting needles can be heard in Syeda Begum’s room after many years. The octogenarian from Srinagar’s Bemina locality is interweaving a small pair of woolen socks from bright colored yarn while her little granddaughter looks earnestly at her devotion.
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.
Along with jammed taps and frozen pipes, the harsh winter in the valley, this year, has also increased 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 says. “There were not many skin creams or medicines to apply back then. In such a situation some useful home-remedies came handy.”
Begum narrates 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 recalls. “It came as a quick care to ‘Shuh’.”
In absence of this water, Begum says, 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.
“All pretentions of being cool about winters ended this year akin to our deceptive dwelling bereft of proper insulations and weather-proof system,” says Shakir Mubeen, a medical representative from downtown Srinagar.
“My mother majorly resorted to ‘Koshur ilaaj’ this winter by making some drinks and ointments mandatory to save our skin from the harsh and hostile weather.”
In deep and frosty south which received a sizeable snowfall this year, Mubashir Hakeem 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, Mubashir says, the nighttime hot-water washing helped prevent skin cracks, dryness and swellings.
However, terming these measures a bit far-fetched at a time when drug-dominated market of the valley remains stockpiled with the best cold creams, many are denouncing these old measures as a sign of “medieval mindset”.
“Its fine that this winter pricked our illusory balloon of living, but how good is this to resort to the done and dusted methods to counter the harsh reality like cold?” asks Masrat Amin, a practicing physician from Srinagar.
“If at all we are going old school, it shows our lapsing faith in modern medicine.”
But despite these brickbats, many prefer the homemade treatment to keep their skin healthy when malady like chilblain is giving them tough time in the valley.
“The severity of the skin cases has increased this year because of the extreme temperature,” says Dr Faizan Shah, senior Dermatologist at Government Medical College (GMC), Srinagar.
“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 per cent 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 per cent 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 says 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.”
But as it rains when the spring is around the corner, Syeda Begum seems relentless in her pursuit to stockpile some spun woolens for her granddaughter.
The elder is dismissing the growing gruff against her ‘vain devotion’ by firmly adhering to her experience of surviving 80-odd winters in Kashmir.
“Chillaikalan may not be there anymore, but ‘posh-e- teer’ [spring cold] is equally tormenting if not handled properly,” says Begum.
“Kashir never makes it easy for anyone. That’s way we have to stay prepared to save our skin here.”