You, or someone you know often complains of constantly having cold hands and feet ? In most cases, this is not a problem. It’s simply due to the mechanisms our body employs to maintain and regulate its temperature.
For our body, the blood is a fantastic reserve of heat: by diverting it towards the skin, it allows the heat stored there to be transferred to the outside, which will help to cool us down. This is why, on a hot day, our complexion can be redder.
Conversely, when we are cold, blood vessels of our skin shrink and the blood is less routed to the periphery. Less blood means less heat that is retained by the body, and this phenomenon is particularly visible in our extremities – hands and feet in particular.
It is therefore a normal process, which shows that our body is doing its job of maintaining a normal internal temperature and protection of our organs.
Normally, this feeling is only temporary… But if a person has still cold hands and feet, even when his body is warm enough, this may be a sign that something else is contributing.
What other possible causes?
Anything that causes blood vessels to narrow can impact how warm (or cold, for that matter) the extremities feel.
This may be due to causes such as Raynaud’s phenomenon – or disease –in which certain blood vessels going to the extremities become temporarily narrowed.
People with Raynaud’s phenomenon usually present during the seizure one or more fingers (or just one knuckle) that are very white, cold and insensitive; sometimes the toes, nose or ears may be affected. The circulation disturbance can last a few minutes or a few hours.
Most often, the symptoms of Raynaud’s disease appear without a clearly identified cause (they can be triggered by the cold, a stress…). But this disease can also be, in about 10% of casesthe result of more serious underlying causes, such as immune deficiency or high blood pressure.
Other factors can also cause abnormally cold hands: in general, anything that prevents blood from flowing well in the vessels can lead to colder extremities.
For example, people with uncontrolled diabetes are more likely to see fatty deposits forming inside blood vessels, making them narrow and hard and, in the process, restricting circulation to them.
trauma or tissue damage can also cause decreased blood circulation to the affected area. If a person has had hand or arm surgery, or had an injury in the past, this can impact how warm the extremities feel.
Another possible cause is anemiawhich can impede the transport of oxygen-rich blood through the body and lead to cold hands and feet.
Smoking can also be the cause of a case of icy fingers and toes. Nicotine in fact causes the blood vessels to narrow and consequently reduces the flow therein.
When is it a problem?
Under normal circumstances, cold hands and feet are nothing to worry about. But don’t forget that this is due to a decrease in the blood supply to the extremities: over time, if the phenomenon is regular, it can lead to brittle nails, dry or cracked skin, a skin discoloration and a tingling sensation or numbness in these areas.
These areas may also be less sensitive to cold, and it may even become quite painful to use your fingers or feet when they are icy.
Reduced blood supply can further make hands and feet slower to heal when injured, which can allow infections to persist and grow.
Over time, the restriction of blood flow can also damage the nerves. The impact on the nerves, as well as the increased risks of infection, can, in the worst cases, necessitate amputations.
If constantly cold hands and feet worry you, it’s always a good idea to talk to your family doctor.
What can be done to avoid such extremes?
If you start to feel a temporary chill in your extremities, stick to the basics… You can:
- Put on a pair of thick socks. This simple trick can also be beneficial for getting a good night’s sleep, as research shows that warming your feet can improve sleep quality.
- Wear gloves or mittens.
- Wash your hands with warm water and dry them immediately.
- Avoid sudden temperature changes by wearing several layers of warm clothing to maintain your core temperature.
- Avoid air-conditioned rooms as much as possible and make yourself comfortable in the sun during the day.
In the long term, improving blood circulation is essential. It warms your hands and feet, while ensuring that the body effectively pumps blood and gets it to where it needs to go.
You can achieve it by exercising daily, moving at regular intervals throughout the day and stretching your arms and legs. And, of course, maintaining a healthy diet.
So even if you have a temporary cold snap, you will regain your warmth in no time!
This analysis was written by Christian Moro, Associate Professor of Science and Medicine, and Charlotte Phelps, PhD student (both at Bond University in Gold Coast, Australia).
The original article was translated (from English) and published on the site of The Conversation.