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To protect itself from freezing, your body’s priority is to keep the vital organs warm. In cold temperatures, your body instinctively takes the warm blood from your extremities and draws it toward your core, where it can keep your heart, lungs, and other organs protected. While it’s normal to experience cold fingers when you’re in a cold environment, some people are at greater risk than others for frostbite.
If your fingers are getting cold when the temperature is normal, there could be an underlying cause. Cold fingers could be an indication of several problems, including Raynaud’s syndrome, hypothyroidism, vitamin deficiencies, anemia, arterial disease, or even an autoimmune condition.
1. Raynaud’s syndrome
Raynaud’s syndrome, also called Raynaud’s phenomenon, is a condition that causes some areas of your body — usually your fingers — to feel inappropriately cold and numb when you’re exposed to cold temperatures or high levels of stress. If you have Raynaud’s, you may experience attacks of extremely cold and numb fingers. This happens because the small arteries that supply blood to your skin are in spasm.
During a Raynaud’s attack, the arteries narrow, which prevents blood from circulating correctly. The fingers often change color, going from white to blue to red. As the attack ends and the blood flow to your hands returns to normal, you may experience tingling, throbbing, or swelling.
Your doctor can diagnose Raynaud’s based on your medical history and symptoms. They may do blood tests to rule out other possible causes for your symptoms, such as an autoimmune disorder. Most people with Raynaud’s have primary Raynaud’s, which is a condition that exists on its own. Other people have secondary Raynaud’s, which means that their Raynaud’s attacks are a symptom of another medical condition.
Raynaud’s isn’t usually debilitating and most people require no treatment. But there are treatment options available. Doctors typically prescribe medications that widen the blood vessels and improve circulation. These include calcium channel blockers, alpha blockers, and vasodilators.
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) is when your thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones. It’s most common among women over 60, but it can affect anyone. Hypothyroidism comes on gradually and rarely produces symptoms in the early stages. Over time, the condition can cause complications such as heart disease, pain in the joints, obesity, and infertility.
If your fingers are feeling unusually cold, it’s possible that you have an underactive thyroid. Hypothyroidism doesn’t cause cold fingers, but it increases your sensitivity to cold. This means you feel colder than you actually are. If you’re consistently colder than other people and have additional symptoms, it may be time to get tested. Other symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
- weight gain
- puffy face
- dry skin
- muscle weakness, aches, tenderness, and stiffness
- high or elevated cholesterol levels
- hair loss or thinning hair
- joint pain, stiffness, and swelling
Your primary care doctor can detect hypothyroidism with a simple blood test. If you’re a woman over 60, your doctor may already be testing for hypothyroidism during your annual physical. Treatment involves a daily dose of synthetic thyroid hormone, which is usually safe and effective.
3. Cold temperatures
It’s no surprise that cold temperatures cause cold fingers. But what are the risks of a more serious problem developing? When bare skin is exposed to extreme cold, frostbite can begin to develop within a matter of minutes. Frostbite, the freezing of the skin and underlying tissues, is a medical emergency with serious complications. Once it progresses past the first stage, it can cause permanent damage to skin, tissues, muscles, and bones.
If you have poor circulation in your hands because of Raynaud’s or another medical condition, then you are at increased risk of frostbite.
4. Vitamin B-12 deficiency
Vitamin B-12 is an essential vitamin found naturally in many foods, including eggs, fish, meat, poultry, and dairy products. It’s required for proper red blood cell formation and neurological function. Many people, especially vegetarians and vegans, don’t get enough of it.
A vitamin B-12 deficiency can cause neurological symptoms like coldness, numbness, and tingling in the hands and feet. Other symptoms of a B-12 deficiency include:
- difficulty maintaining balance
- soreness of the mouth
To test for a vitamin B-12 deficiency, your doctor will need to take a blood sample. The most common treatment is vitamin B-12 injections, because many people have trouble absorbing B-12 through the digestive tract. But a high dose of an oral B-12 supplement may also be effective.
Anemia is a condition in which your blood has a lower than normal amount of red blood cells. It also occurs when your red blood cells lack a crucial iron-rich protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin helps your red blood cells deliver oxygen from the lungs to the rest of your body.
If your body doesn’t have enough hemoglobin to carry oxygen-rich blood to your hands, you may experience cold fingers. You may also feel fatigued and weak. Most cases of anemia are caused by an iron deficiency.
If you suspect that you have anemia, ask your primary doctor to do some blood work. If your blood work indicates low levels of iron, your doctor may suggest making dietary changes. Eating a diet rich in iron and taking iron supplements is often enough to relieve symptoms. Here’s how you can also increase your absorption of iron from foods.
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation. Like other autoimmune disorders, lupus occurs when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues and organs. Lupus can cause inflammation all over the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, and blood cells.
The symptoms of lupus vary widely depending on which part of the body has inflammation. Lupus can cause Raynaud’s syndrome, which leads to attacks of cold, numb fingers when you are exposed to cold weather or you’re feeling stressed. Other symptoms include:
- a facial rash
- joint pain
- skin lesions
Lupus is notoriously difficult to diagnose because its symptoms resemble the symptoms of many other conditions. Your doctor will have to test for other conditions before giving a lupus diagnosis.
There’s no cure for lupus, but symptoms can be managed with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, immunosuppressants, and other medications.
Scleroderma is a group of diseases that cause a hardening of the skin. It affects the connective tissue inside your body, making it hard or thick. It can cause swelling and pain in the joints and muscles.
Most people with scleroderma get Raynaud’s syndrome, which can cause attacks of icy cold fingers. People with scleroderma also develop thick, tight skin on the fingers and red spots on the hands. To diagnose scleroderma, your doctor will perform an exam and may take a skin biopsy. There’s no cure, but some of the symptoms and disease progression can be managed with medications.
8. Arterial diseases
Various diseases that affect the arteries can reduce blood flow to the hands, causing cold fingers. This can be caused by a buildup of plaque or an inflammation in the blood vessels. Any kind of blockage in the blood vessels can prevent your blood from circulating normally.
Another arterial problem is primary pulmonary hypertension, which affects the arteries of the lungs and leads to Raynaud’s syndrome, especially in people with other types of autoimmune disease.
9. Carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) occurs when the median nerve, which runs between your forearm and the palm of your hand, becomes squeezed at the wrist. The median nerve provides feeling to the palm side of your hands and fingers. When it gets squeezed by the rigid passageway known as the carpal tunnel, it causes painful symptoms.
CTS symptoms come on slowly and gradually worsen. Early symptoms include numbness and tingling in the hands and fingers. Many people with CTS experience Raynaud’s syndrome and an increased sensitivity to cold. Symptoms can typically be alleviated by a wrist splint and anti-inflammatories. These exercises may also help. In severe cases surgery may be required.
Smoking is bad for your whole body, including your circulation. Smoking causes blood vessels to narrow, which can cause cold fingers. It can also lead to a rare condition called Buerger’s disease, which causes inflammation in the blood vessels. Talk to your doctor about quitting.
Here are a few strategies you can use to warm up your fingers, fast:
- Put your hands under your armpits to benefit from the warm blood in your core.
- Keep an electric heating pad in the house to use during a Raynaud’s attack.
- Carry hand warmers in your purse or pocket throughout the winter. Try Hot Hands. If you’re planning on spending the day outside in the cold, put hand warmers inside your gloves.
- Try using mittens instead of gloves. Keeping your fingers together creates more warmth.
- Try a Zippo 12-hour hand warmer
- Run your hands under warm water until they feel better. Then dry them fully.
- Hold a cup of hot tea.
- Do 10 to 15 jumping jacks to get your blood pumping.
Cold fingers are a part of life, especially for those living in cold environments. Talk to your doctor about your cold hands, especially if you’re experiencing other symptoms. Many of the underlying conditions of cold fingers can be managed with treatment and lifestyle changes.