For some of us, when the weather dips into freezing territory, we start to forget what it’s like to actually feel warm. No matter how much hot cocoa, coffee and tea you drink, your extremities still tingle with cold. A chill seems to slither down your spine at a moment’s notice. Layers of blankets are futile, and sitting by the fire is a temporary fix.
So, what’s up exactly? Here at The Good Stuff, we asked internist Sam Altstein, DO, Medical Director of Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Group in New York to tell us the most common cause of that deep bodily chill and what we can do to warm up in winter!
Why do so many of us feel so cold?
Dr. Altstein says there’s an issue that may affect 10 percent of the population, which is why so many of us feel the chill right about now: Raynaud’s Phenomenon. “People with Raynaud’s Phenomenon experience greater than average sensitivity to cold temperatures in their extremities, hands and fingers more commonly than feet and toes,” Dr. Altstein says. He also says it’s normal for arteries in hands and fingers to constrict in cold conditions to keep core body heat from dropping as a survival mechanism. “However, the arteries in hands and feet in people who have Raynaud’s Phenomenon over constrict in cold conditions, thereby causing pain when exposed to low temperatures.”
Who gets Raynaud’s?
There is a typical Raynaud’s sufferer. “It is most commonly an isolated condition, the cause of which is unknown,” Dr. Alstein says. “Primary Raynaud’s occurs most commonly in women between the ages of 15 and 30.” Most of the time, the cold in your hands, fingers or toes will occur alone, but you should be more concerned if you see risk factors for other conditions that accompany these symptoms: if you’re a man; if you get these symptoms for the first time after age 40; or if there’s severe pain or ulceration in your hands or feet in addition to the chill.
When should you see a doc?
If you feel your body is abnormally cold, even when you’re inside or wearing gloves and layers, make an appointment with your PCP. “Before the visit, it would be helpful if you could write a history of the problem and make notes about other symptoms such as joint pain, rashes, fatigue, dry eyes, dry mouth or swallowing difficulties,” Dr. Altstein says. This will help your doctor determine if you have something like Raynaud’s, or an underlying condition like a thyroid or autoimmune issue causing similar symptoms.
What can be done?
You doctor should order lab tests to screen for autoimmune conditions, and can also perform a test on your nails called Nailfold Capillary Microscopy to tell the difference between Primary and Secondary Raynaud’s (the latter of which is the result of another underlying condition). “Otherwise, people who have Raynaud’s Phenomenon should dress warmly, paying particular attention to wearing warm socks and shoes and gloves,” Dr. Altstein says. “If symptoms are severe, your doctor can consider prescribing calcium channel blockers.” These meds typically treat high blood pressure, but can help alleviate symptoms of Raynaud’s by dilating vessels and increasing blood flow–keeping those hands and feet warm.
Although it’s really uncomfortable to be cold all the time, it’s important to remember that there’s nothing inherently dangerous about primary Raynaud’s Phenomenon in the absence of other symptoms. The classic “you have poor circulation” is probably not the reason you’re feeling the chill seep in. So breathe, bundle up, and schedule an appointment with your doctor.