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9 Reasons You Have Cold Hands and Feet

Cold hands and feet

 

Everyone loves a good pair of slippers or a warm blanket for cold hands and feet. But if you constantly shiver without them, there may be a medical cause. And here  we’ll talk about potential causes and remedies for when your extremities are always cold.

98.6° is often touted as the perfect internal body temperature. But anywhere between 97° and 99° is an acceptable body temperature. And your internal body temperature may not even stay the same throughout the day. (1)

According to a 2010 study, cold hands and feet appear most often in younger, slimmer females — and least often in older, stouter males. (2) Other things that can change your average internal body temperature include your daily activity levels, your diet, and the time of day.

Below, we’ll take a peek at some reasons you may shiver such as diabetes, lupus, or smoking cigarettes! And hopefully, we’ll be able to warm those cold hands and feet, so you won’t have to wear those slippers 24/7.

What if you work in the cold?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses the term “cold stress” to describe the health risks associated with working in cold environments, as well as increased wind speeds. Among the common types of “cold stress” is frostbite.

“Cold stress” happens when external cold drives down skin temperatures, then internal body temperatures. Ask your employer to train workers on how to recognize and prevent “cold stress”. Employers should also utilize safe work practices, such as breaks in warm areas and provide radiant heaters. Though shivering may be a sign of mild hypothermia, frostbite can also be tricky to diagnose and treat. (34)

 

Frostbite

Ears, nose, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes are the most common victims of the well-known phenomenon called frostbite. When exposed to the cold, these extremities experience decreased sensitivity to the touch, dexterity, and motor function. It can also cause pain, or even lead to death. (Frostnip is a milder form, easily treatable.)

Here, we’ll look at the risk factors, symptoms, and treatments for frostbite. If you work outside on a consistent basis, this could save your life.

Frostbite can develop in less than 30 minutes. There are several conditions which can increase risk for frostbite:

  • Clothing that is too tight — including gloves, thick socks, and boots
  • Clothing that is too light — if you fail to dress appropriately for cold weather
  • High altitudes — less oxygen supply
  • Smoking
  • Intoxication while in cold weather — by drugs or alcohol
  • Some medicines — including beta blockers
  • Dehydration or excessive sweating
  • Previous bouts with frostbite

Often, a victim of frostbite will not realize it because the affected areas are numb. Go to a medical center if the following occurs:

  • Numbness
  • Red, blue, white, gray, or yellow areas on the skin
  • Unusually firm or waxy-looking skin
  • Blisters filled with a clear fluid (often occurs after rewarming)
  • Clumsiness due to affected muscle and joint pain
  • In extreme cases — fever
  • In extreme cases — blisters filled with blood (often occurs after rewarming)
  • In extreme cases — black, dead skin

If frostbitten, immediately seek medical attention. (Hypothermia exhibits similar symptoms, but is more medically serious.) Other methods of protection once frostbitten include: (567)

  • Escape the cold. If you are outside, go inside. Wind can exacerbate the issue.
  • Take off wet clothing. No clothes is better than wet clothes.
  • Warm blankets can increase body temperature. If none are available, use body heat on the affected area — either from a warmer part of your body, or another person’s warmth.
  • Wash and dry the affected area, to avoid infection. Wrap in bandages to keep the area clean.
  • Reduce pain and inflammation with ibuprofen.
  • Avoid hot water. Immersion in warm water can help though.
  • Avoid using frostbitten feet. Walking on them may cause cuts without you realizing or nerve damage in more extreme cases.
  • Avoid massaging the affected area to avoid tissue damage.
  • Avoid warming the affected area with extreme heat. A furnace or heating pad may burn the skin without you realizing it.

cold baby feet

Baby With Cold Hands and Feet

It’s perfectly normal for infants to experience cold hands and feet. The development of a baby’s cardiovascular system continues outside the womb. So the blood isn’t yet used to properly distributing oxygen to the infant’s extremities.

If no other sign of discomfort or crying takes place, cold hands and/or feet is no reason to visit the doctor. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take any action.

If a baby is in only a diaper, put clothes on him. But a thick sweater or blanket may be too much if the temperature of the environment isn’t cold. If you’re still concerned, take the infant’s temperature. If the thermometer reads under 97° Fahrenheit, wrap him in a blanket.

If the thermometer reads above 99° Fahrenheit, cold feet may be a warning sign of meningitis. Other signs of meningitis include:

  • Irritability
  • Back/neck stiffness
  • Otherwise limp body
  • Vomiting/no appetite
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Bulging fontanelle

Unfortunately, severe meningitis can prove to be fatal in untreated. But if you catch it quick, a trip to the emergency room should diagnose and treat it effectively. (89)

 

Common Causes For Cold Hands and Feet

Next, let’s look at several potential reasons for those chilly fingers and toes. Once you read through the accompanying remedies, you should know exactly how to get back to that comfy 98.6°.

 

Anemia

Though there exist many forms of anemia, the general definition is “a condition in which you don’t have enough healthy blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body’s tissues.” Here are the major forms of anemia which can cause cold hands or cold feet. (10)

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common of the forms. Besides cold hands and feet, other symptoms include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Pale/yellow skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Hair loss
  • Brittle nails
  • Craving ice

Iron deficiency anemia should be diagnosed with a test that includes a “complete blood count” (CBC). Treatment often involves taking iron supplements, or adding iron-rich foods to your diet, such as most meats, shellfish, leafy greens, lima beans, peas, and iron-enriched pasta, grains, and cereals. In very severe cases, surgery is needed. (11)

Hemolytic anemia is a less common form of anemia. The body regularly disposes of old red blood cells through hemolysis. If your spleen and other organs dispose of too many red blood cells, this is called hemolytic anemia. Besides cold hands and feet, other symptoms include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Pale/yellow skin
  • Headaches
  • Jaundice
  • Heart palpitations
  • Abnormally large liver or spleen

Hemolytic anemia can be diagnosed by physical exam, blood test, urine test, bone marrow test, or genetic test. Treatment involves anywhere from prescriptions and lifestyle changes, to blood transfusions, bone marrow transplants, or surgery to remove the spleen. (12)

Thalassemia is an inherited form of anemia. Here, the body doesn’t produce enough of the protein hemoglobin. Without enough hemoglobin, red blood cells won’t function as efficiently. As red blood cells die out faster, and the body develops anemic symptoms. Other than cold hands and feet, symptoms include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Pale/yellow skin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Leg cramps
  • Difficulty concentrating

Thalassemia can be diagnosed by blood test. Usually, at a young age because this underlying disease is mostly inherited. The disorder is prevalent in families descended from Mediterranean countries, as well as Asian and African countries. Treatment involves blood transfusions and a vitamin B supplement known as folic acid. (13)

 

Hypothyroidism

The thyroid hormone regulates the body’s metabolism. 8th grade Latin review: “Hypo-” means “under” or “below normal”. So, hypothyroidism is when the body produces lower than typical thyroid hormone. In other words, an underactive thyroid.

One symptom of a slow metabolism is cold intolerance. Those suffering from hypothyroidism might feel their hands and feet are cold. But, really, it is because their lowered tolerance for chilly temperatures makes it feel that way.

There are two major causes of hypothyroidism. The first is autoimmune thyroiditis, also known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Here, the immune system enlarges the thyroid gland, trying to compensate for an “under-producing” thyroid gland.

The second cause is a broad category, known as “medical treatments”. Most often, a surgery or medical procedure will leave the body with too small a thyroid gland. Less often, radioactive iodine therapy — sometimes used to combat goiters and other conditions — can damage too many of the thyroid gland’s cells.

Other symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Fatigue, drowsiness
  • Irritability
  • Weight gain
  • Rough, dry skin
  • Muscle aches and cramps
  • Hair loss
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Abnormal menstrual cycle
  • Decreased libido

Hypothyroidism is often treated through the prescription thyroid hormone, a synthetic called levothyroxine. This treatment is usually lifelong. Natural extracts from pig thyroid glands are also available, though healthcare providers seldom recommend the natural extract over the synthetic thyroid hormone. (14)

 

Diabetes

About two-thirds of people with diabetes develop diabetic peripheral neuropathy. This is a form of nerve damage which can cause burning, tingling, and sensitivity to touch. Though the feet may feel warm to the touch, those suffering from diabetic peripheral neuropathy may feel their feet are ice cold.

People who live with diabetic peripheral neuropathy are less capable of healing on the inside — since the nerve damage is often irreversible. So, we look to more on-the-outside solutions for cold feet: (15)

  • Well-fitted socks and shoes are your friends. Especially in they have lining inside them.
  • Avoid being barefoot, whether outside or inside.
  • Maintain room temperature in your home, workplace, and place of worship.
  • Avoid electric blankets, heated socks, scalding hot baths, or hot water bottles. Your skin may burn without you noticing right away.
  • If you ever find unexplained cuts or blisters on your feet, consult a physician immediately.

 

Vitamin B12 Deficiency

What does the human body need vitamin B12 for? Production of red blood cells, nerves, and DNA, and to perform other necessary bodily functions. Since B12 is necessary to produce red blood cells, its absence would result in less efficient distribution of oxygen. And that lack of oxygen to the extremities causes cold hands and feet.

More than three percent of adults over the age of 50 are estimated to live with vitamin B12 deficiency. Symptoms include numbness, tingling in the extremities, issues with balance, issues with walking, issues with memory, swollen tongue, and drowsiness.

Unfortunately, the human body does not produce B12. So, we humans must consume two and a half micrograms every day, often through food or supplements. A mild deficiency can be remedied through a normal multivitamin. A more serious deficiency needs to be corrected through weekly B12 shots, or daily high-dose B12 pills. (1617)

 

Primary Pulmonary Hypertension (PPH)

Primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH) is a rare chronic disease. High blood pressure builds up in the lungs. The lungs’ blood vessels constrict, and the pressure in the pulmonary artery rises. By now, you probably recognize that constricting blood vessels leads to cold hands and feet. Though some researchers claim PPH is genetic, the scientific consensus on the causes of PPH are inconclusive.

PPH is difficult to diagnose. Symptoms vary, but may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Fainting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Bluish areas of skin
  • Swelling in the ankles

As the disease progresses, patients may exhibit symptoms even while resting.

PPH is seldom detected in a routine exam. A doctor may diagnose a patient with PPH by chest x-ray, blood tests, ECG, echocardiogram, or pulmonary function tests. It can lead to heart failure if not treated.

Treatments vary as much as symptoms. Prescription medication can be effective, but oxygen therapy is sometimes needed. In severe cases, lung or heart-lung transplant is an option.

To avoid PPH — or the worsening of its symptoms — there are several steps you can take. Steer clear of high altitudes, and don’t smoke. Some prescriptions unrelated to PPH can exacerbate a patient’s PPH, so be sure your physician and/or pharmacist know about your PPH. Pregnancy may also pose potential threats to the mother and child when PPH is involved. You can also discuss this with your physician. (18)

 

Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)

Also known as peripheral vascular disease, peripheral artery disease (PAD) is caused by clogged arteries — often in the legs. This can decrease blood circulation and result in cold feet.

PAD affects between one and two-tenths of adults over the age of 60. Unlike other diseases in this list, PAD is found slightly more typically in men, than in women. PAD is common among diabetics and smokers.

Besides cold feet, symptoms may include:

  • Bluish or pale areas of skin
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Sores on the leg
  • Aches in the feet
  • Loss of hair on legs
  • Impotence
  • Gangrene or stroke occurs in severe cases

PAD is not usually an emergency. You shouldn’t ignore it either. A doctor can detect PAD by checking the pulse in your legs. An Edinburgh Claudication Questionnaire is a series of six questions, accompanied by a pain diagram, which can accurately diagnose PAD. But the most widely used test is the ankle/brachial index — which compares the arm’s blood pressure to the leg’s.

Treatment may involve self-care or medical treatment. You can quit smoking, keep a healthy weight, eat low-fat and low-cholesterol foods, and stay active.

Angioplasty is a medical technique which enlarges constricted arteries — no surgery required. Stenting is utilized when angioplasty fails to last. Several prescription medications can also treat PAD and remedy those cold feet. (19)

 

Raynaud’s Syndrome

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your cold hands and feet could be caused by Raynaud’s Syndrome — a disease where blood vessels can spasm, restricting blood flow to the extremities. These blood vessels appear to react to cold temperatures or stress.

Also called Raynaud’s disease or Raynaud’s phenomenon, researchers have not reached consensus on its cause. But genetics and age are risk factors.

Raynaud’s is seldom debilitating. The change in skin color of the fingers is often more bothersome than the cold hands and feet. Women are more likely to have Raynaud’s than men.

Symptoms include:

  • Cold fingers
  • Cold toes
  • Skin color changes
  • Tingling
  • Numbness

In a typical attack of Raynaud’s, the affected areas of skin turn white then blue.

Raynaud’s cannot be diagnosed with a single blood test. A doctor can administer a physical and inquire into family history. But a Raynaud’s diagnosis is often more about the process of elimination.

A doctor may prescribe medication in mild cases — such as calcium channel blockers. In more severe cases, chemical injections or nerve surgery may become treatment options. (20)

 

Lupus

Systemic lupus erythematosus is the (very) long name for lupus. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease. It causes inflammation in several organs, such as the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, heart, and brain. In many cases, lupus can decrease blood cell count. Then, blood cannot as efficiently carry oxygen to the extremities — cold hands and feet ensue.

Lupus is found in ten times more women than men. Symptoms often include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Weight loss
  • Rashes
  • Mouth sores
  • Fever
  • Cold hands and feet

Exposure to the sun can cause flare-ups. Treatment depends on the organ(s) affected, but prescriptions often suffice. (21)

 

Smoking Tobacco

Not only are most cigarettes chock full of carcinogens, but tobacco also constricts the blood vessels and causes circulatory problems. Smokers will often experience cold hands and feet because the blood cannot efficiently carry oxygen to their extremities.

autumn hammock

Remedies for Cold Hands and Feet

We discussed treatments and remedies for cold hands and cold feet under each potential cause. But, if none of those symptoms apply to you, here are some general tips for what to do and what not to do:

  • Avoid being barefoot, whether outside or inside.
  • Maintain a comfortable temperature in your home. Any temperature in the seventies Fahrenheit (or, twenties Centigrade) is considered room temperature.
  • Some buildings do not regulate their temperature for a variety of reasons. Kindly ask if your place of business can maintain room temperature.
  • Well-fitting socks and shoes are your friends.
  • Avoid electric blankets, heated socks, scalding hot baths, or hot water bottles. Your skin may burn without you noticing. This is especially the case if you’re dealing with neuropathy, diagnosed or undiagnosed.

 

When to see a doctor

As discussed above, medical attention is sometimes needed when cold hand and feet are involved. If a perpetual rapid heartbeat, fainting, chest pains, fever, or discoloration accompany your cold extremities, those are the surest signs of a more serious underlying cause.

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