It's normal for your hands to feel cold when you're outside in the winter or in a room where the AC is cranked up. But when that frigid feeling seems, well, nonstop, something else might be at play.
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Consistently cold hands or fingertips may mean that blood isn't flowing to your hands as well as it should, which could be the sign of an underlying health problem, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"Having a blockage in the arteries that prevents the blood from reaching a certain point in your body can cause coldness in the hand. Being exposed to cold can also cause vasospasm, or narrowing of the blood vessels, eventually diminishing the blood flow to the hands," explains Alain Tanbe, MD, a vascular surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. Sometimes, the cold feeling can start to cause pain in your hands or even cause them to go numb.
You may need to pay attention to your other symptoms in order to pinpoint the problem. Here are five of the most common cold hands causes, when it's worth calling the doctor and what you can do to fight the chill.
1. It's Raynaud's Syndrome
Hands that become painfully cold, pale or numb in response to cold temperatures could be a sign of Raynaud's disease. "It's the most common cause of cold hands that I typically see," Dr. Tanbe says.
The condition causes blood vessels in the hands and fingers to constrict when a person gets cold or stressed, leading to reduced blood flow, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMSD).
Raynaud's attacks often strike when a person experiences a rapid temperature shift, like entering an overly air-conditioned building or walking into the refrigerated section of the supermarket, says Orrin Troum, MD, a rheumatologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Often, the feeling of cold or discomfort starts in one finger and spreads outwards to other fingers in both hands.
A person can have Raynaud's all by itself, but it can also be a secondary condition caused by other health conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, atherosclerosis or pulmonary hypertension. Exposure to workplace chemicals like vinyl chloride or frequently engaging in repetitive hand motions like typing, playing a musical instrument, or using a vibrating tool can cause secondary Raynaud's too, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: Treating primary Raynaud's often involves avoiding triggers that cause the cold and discomfort, and rewarming hands when they do get too cold, per the NIAMSD. According to Dr. Troum, rewarming can start to ease symptoms within 15 to 20 minutes.
For severe symptoms that cause pain, oral medications or creams including calcium channel blockers and vasodilators can help, Dr. Tanbe says.
2. You Have Diabetes
Up to 70 percent of U.S. adults with diabetes are affected by neuropathy, or nerve damage that can lead to uncomfortable sensations in the hands and feet, according to the Cleveland Clinic. People with neuropathy often describe the feeling as a numbness, tingling or a painful burning in their hands. Sometimes the condition can cause a stabbing or throbbing sensation too.
Fix it: A person with diabetes is more likely to develop neuropathy if their blood sugar isn't well-controlled. Managing your diabetes and sticking with healthy lifestyle habits like achieving a healthy weight and blood pressure, exercising regularly and taking your diabetes medications as prescribed can all help to slow or stop the progression of neuropathy, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Nerve damage that has already occurred can't be reversed. But neuropathy pain can be managed with a combination of medication and physical and occupational therapy to help improve hand strength and function, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
3. You've Got Anemia
If your cold hands or feet are coupled with extreme fatigue or weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, and dizziness or lightheadedness, you could have anemia. A condition that occurs when the blood has a shortage of healthy red blood cells, anemia is most often caused by a lack of dietary iron, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Fix it: Treating the problem and its underlying symptoms is as simple as getting an adequate supply of iron. Eating more iron-rich foods can help, but sometimes, iron supplements or intravenous iron therapy may be needed to replenish a person's iron stores and ensure they get enough of the mineral to keep the anemia from coming back, notes the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
4. It's an Underactive Thyroid
Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, is another common cause of cold hands. The condition occurs when the thyroid doesn't make enough thyroid hormones, which can slow the pace of the body's metabolic functions. That can make a person more sensitive to cold temperatures as well as cause other symptoms like weight gain, fatigue, joint or muscle pain, dry skin, thinning hair and even mood changes, notes the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Fix it: While the problem can start to wreak havoc on the body when left untreated, hypothyroidism is easy to address. In most cases, simply taking synthetic thyroid hormone in the form of a daily pill can reverse a person's symptoms and help them feel more like themselves again, per the Mayo Clinic.
5. You Take Certain Medications
If your cold hands seem to have come on after starting a new medication, the drug could be to blame. Birth control pills, OTC cold and allergy meds, beta blockers, migraine medications, high blood pressure medications and certain chemotherapy drugs all have the potential to trigger secondary Raynaud's syndrome, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: In some cases it may be possible to switch medications or adjust your dosage, which could alleviate the problem. But if that's not an option, avoiding triggers and rewarming your hands when they do get cold can help with managing the discomfort.
The Best Cold Hands Treatments
Constantly cold hands are usually caused by an underlying health issue, and treating the problem is often the first step toward helping your hands feel better.
But you can also take steps to minimize your discomfort and manage the chill when it strikes. Some tips for how to fix cold hands include:
1. Protect Your Hands From the Cold
Wear gloves or mittens before heading out into cold weather or touching cold objects, like food from the freezer or a cold steering wheel. When it's really frigid, try hand warmers, Dr. Tanbe recommends.
2. Steer Clear of Triggers
Some people with Raynaud's syndrome find that their cold hands flare up in response to stress. But simple stress-management techniques like practicing yoga, meditating or even listening to music can help, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
3. Warm Up Quickly
When your hands get cold and uncomfortable, do what you can to warm them up. Get indoors if you're outside and soak your hands in warm water if possible; if warm water isn't available, place your hands under your armpits for warmth. Make circles with your arms or wiggle your fingers to encourage blood to circulate, recommends the NHLBI.
When to See a Doctor for Cold Hands
It's normal for hands to get chilly when you're out in the cold. But if exposure to cold temperatures consistently makes your hands very uncomfortable or your hands feel cold even when it's warm, get in touch with your doctor. They can examine your hands as well as consider any other symptoms you might have to figure out the culprit.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: "Cold Hands"
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases: "Raynaud's Phenomenon"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Raynaud's Phenomenon"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Neuropathy"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Diabetes and Nerve Damage"
- Mayo Clinic: "Iron Deficiency Anemia"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Iron Deficiency Anemia"
- National Institutes of Health: "Hypothyroidism"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hypothyroidism"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Cold Hands"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Reynaud's"