Are you the kind of person whose touch can provoke that, “Wow, your hands are freezing!” or “Ah, your feet are cold!” reaction from a loved one?
Some people are prone to chilly fingers and toes, and there are several potential reasons for it. Here’s what you should know about cold hands and feet, plus a couple of possible explanations why, according to experts:
Your blood circulation may not be to blame
Here’s a myth-busting fact for you: Cold extremities aren’t always the result of poor blood circulation, as you may have heard people suggest, said Geoffrey Barnes, a vascular cardiologist at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center.
“Rather, cold hands can occur because the blood vessels in your hands narrow in response to cold temperatures,” he explained. “Many people will have cold hands, but have normal blood flow in the major arteries of their arms and legs.”
Of course, circulation issues can be to blame in some cases, so if you suspect you have a heart issue or trouble with blood flow, contact a doctor ASAP.
You’re likely not dressed properly for cold weather
Let’s go in with the obvious: the external temperature. Sometimes, if it’s cold outside or you’re not dressed appropriately for the conditions, your body may react to maintain its core temperature for optimum functioning, said Randy Wexler, a family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“When it’s cold, the body shunts blood preferentially to the core to maintain warmth there, and the extremities can get cold,” he explained.
There could be an underlying health condition at play
Some people have a condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon, in which the blood vessels “overreact” to cold temperatures or emotional stress by “tightening down,” Wexler said. Fingers and toes will then typically feel icy, and “this often leads to a white blanching, or blueness or redness of the fingers and toes.”
In most cases, the cause of Raynaud’s is unknown ― and the symptoms may also be so minor that some people with the condition would not even think to seek treatment. However, in other cases, Raynaud’s may result from an underlying condition or source, like smoking, a hand or foot injury, an artery-related disease or carpal tunnel syndrome.
Barnes said Raynaud’s can occur in “just hands, just feet, or in both,” and it “usually it happens on both sides of the body at the same time.” Although it’s uncomfortable, usually Raynaud’s is not serious.
“Most of the time, it’s a nuisance, but not a life-threatening condition,” Barnes explained. “However, for some people it can be more severe. These people typically have other conditions, such as lupus or scleroderma. People who develop sores on their fingers or toes should seek medical attention, as this can be a sign of a more severe form of Raynaud’s phenomenon.”
What you should do if it’s bothering you
For starters, even if you’re just experiencing cold fingers and toes, you should definitely bring the issue up with your primary care physician.
“It’s important to talk to your doctor about cold hands or feet if you start to see sores on the skin, or if the cold prevents you from doing your normal daily activities like cooking, driving or getting dressed,” Barnes said. “There are some medical treatments that can help patients with moderate or severe forms of Raynaud’s phenomenon.”
In general, though, as straightforward as it sounds, keeping your hands, arms, legs and feet warm is the “best first-line treatment,” according to Barnes. Heating pads and blankets, as well as hot water, can “occasionally cause damage if you’re not careful and don’t have a good sense for just how hot they can be,” Barnes said. Most doctors, he added, recommend avoiding these more extreme quick fixes. (Apologies to your personal heater or these other toasty office products designed to keep you warm.)
If you know you’re prone to cold hands and feet, dress warm, like with thick gloves and wool socks.
“The most important thing is prevention — keeping the body and the limbs warm,” Barnes explained. “And when your hands or feet get cold, the safest thing is to passively re-warm them by going someplace warmer and putting on extra layers.”
Or, if you have an extra-kind loved one who tends to run warm, perhaps they’ll share a little of their heat with you, too.