Got cold hands or feet? This might be why
Dr Hamish gives us the facts and suggestions on how to help
Sure, we all get a little chilly in the depths of winter. That’s what gloves and thermal socks are for, right? But if you find your fingers are freezing even in the warmer months, and often wonder, ‘Why are my hands always cold?’, there may be something else at play.
We asked Dr Hamish Black, nib Group Medical Advisor about the possible causes of cold hands and feet, and what you can do about it.
Common causes of cold hands and feet
Having naturally ‘colder peripheries’ without any underlying disease isn’t uncommon. “The most common cause is, of course, cold exposure, but this doesn’t have to mean extremes of cold,” Hamish says. For instance, “it can happen in air-conditioned nursing homes. The elderly generally feel the cold more than younger people and I expect this relates to relative differences in metabolism as we age.”
Cold peripheries are often the result of reduced blood flow. But don’t panic! That in itself
isn’t necessarily cause for concern. One of the body’s top priorities is keeping vital organs at just the right temperature for healthy functioning. When our environment is cold, our bodies respond by directing blood flow to these important organs that keep us alive, which may in turn reduce the amount of blood reaching your hands and feet, leaving them feeling cold.
The most common medical reason for cold peripheries, says Hamish, is Raynaud’s phenomenon, “which is basically excessive vasoconstriction (the narrowing of blood vessels) to the cold.”
With Raynaud’s, blood supply to your extremities decreases, the fingers and toes can feel very cold, tingly and even numb. It’s not just cold temperatures that can cause the condition – which affects around one in 20 people. Emotionally stressful situations can also prompt the response. It’s important to note that Raynaud’s phenomenon may also be a sign of an underlying autoimmune disorder such as scleroderma or lupus, so it’s a good idea to mention it to your doctor.
Other possible causes of cold hands or feet include smoking, anxiety and viral or bacterial infections, along with medical conditions such as anaemia, hypothyroidism, peripheral arterial disease, diabetes or vitamin B12 deficiency.
“More serious causes of cold peripheries include sepsis and peripheral vascular disease,” adds Hamish.
Tips to prevent cold hands and feet
Try these simple tips to keep your extremities toasty warm:
Warm up your hands by wearing mittens (which keeps your fingers together and conserve warmth better than gloves). If cold feet cause you discomfort, wear thick wool socks and slippers or appropriate full-coverage footwear outdoors. Tip: layer more than one pair of socks if you need to get extra warm.
Keep your core temperature up by wearing warm clothes. Layering several items is ideal as they can be taken off as needed.
Avoid vasoconstrictors such as caffeine and nicotine, which can worsen the effects of the cold.
If you spend a lot of time sitting, take time to stand, stretch and move every half hour. Running on the spot, doing star jumps or wind-milling your arms can help get the blood pumping. Also, exercise regularly to maintain good blood circulation.
For cold feet at night, a heating pad placed on the lower back can help promote increased blood flow to your legs.
When should cold hands or feet be a concern?
Of course, if you’re at all concerned, it’s always a good idea to get reassurance from a healthcare professional. But there are situations when a doctor’s visit should be a priority. “It would be concerning if cold hands and feet were of recent onset,” says Hamish. “Or if the sensation was limited to one hand or foot, as this would suggest vessel disease. If also systemically unwell, you should seek immediate attention. And for young children and the elderly, new onset of these symptoms would warrant a search for infections or chronic illnesses.”
At nib, we aim to be your partner in health – helping you put your health first. We all know that prevention is better than cure, so we’ve put together a list of health checks for all ages. Scroll through to find the age relevant for you and get onto booking those important appointments.
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Dr Hamish Black
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Dr Hamish Black
Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.