Are Your Cold Hands and Feet Signs of a More Serious Condition?

Photo: Stocksy/Ani Dimi

Even though winter can be the coziest time of year, chilly temps bring a host of health-related issues from dry skin to the flu. And for some, comfort can't even be found in warm leggings, the puffiest of puffer coats, or the dreamiest soak.

Do you tend to be more sensitive to the freezing temps than your friends, especially in your fingers and toes? You could just be cold, sure, but you could also be suffering from something called Raynaud's syndrome.

A circulation issue that affects 5 to 10 percent of all Americans, primarily women, Raynaud's is caused by spasms in small blood vessels that limit blood flow to extremities like the hands, feet, ears, and nose, says Francis J. Porreca, MD, Chief of Vascular Surgery at the Einstein Medical Center in New York City. (So if you've ever Googled "nose warmer," you might want to listen up—or is that just me?)

The Raynaud's Association reports that only about one in ten people who suffer from Raynaud's seek treatment.

Unlike with "normal" chilly toes that just need a pair of cozy socks to warm up (hygge FTW!), Raynaud's can cause some scary-looking, and potentially far more serious, symptoms. When you have it, the slow flow of blood can cause pain, numbness, and tingling, and when exposed to bitter cold, fingers can turn white or purple within minutes (experts call this the "blue digits"). When you warm back up, your fingers or toes can turn red, says Tania Dempsey, MD, of Armonk Integrative Medicine in New York. In the most severe cases, ulcerations can occur. 

Despite these alarming symptoms, the Raynaud's Association reports that only about one in ten people who suffer from Raynaud's seek treatment.

So, what causes Raynaud's, and how do you know if you have something more than just poor circulation? Keep reading to find out.

What is Raynaud's Syndrome?
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How do you get Raynaud's?

As with most conditions, circulatory issues have varying degrees of severity. People usually claim to have "bad circulation" when they have cold hands and feet, Dr. Dempsey says, when in fact they have issues with microcirculation, the movement of blood through your smallest blood vessels. Poor microcirculation can be caused by low thyroid function, low body weight, or beta blocker (blood pressure medication) usage.

“There is often an overlap between different microcirculation issues, but the color changes seen in Raynaud's sets it apart from the other conditions," Dr. Dempsey says.

There are two types of Raynaud’s, primary and secondary. Primary, which is much more common, unfortunately doesn't have a known cause. But Dr. Dempsey says exposure to the cold (especially if you live in a climate with long, hard winters), emotional stress, or some medications and chemicals, can trigger it.

Secondary, meanwhile, means that the condition is a side effect of an underlying disease, possibly lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Porreca explains. This is potentially much more serious, so if you're seeing symptoms at all, be sure to check in with your doctor.

What is Raynaud's Syndrome?
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Is there a way to treat it?

Treatment for Raynaud’s, especially if it's the primary type, is *thankfully* pretty manageable. Some simple lifestyle changes can help. “If Raynaud's is being triggered by the cold weather, dress in layers and keep hands and feet covered as much as possible," says Dr. Dempsey. "Wearing gloves or mittens and keeping your feet covered with warm socks and boots will help."

Only seeing a doctor can determine if cold is the driver of your Raynaud's, and if it isn’t, there are medications and supplements you can take, including calcium channel blockers and vasodilators, to help open your blood vessels. What's most important is to keep the blood flowing, Dr. Dempsey says, so the use of compression garments and leg wraps may also be necessary.

If you're diagnosed with secondary Raynaud's, the treatment methods could be more complicated because they'll likely involve addressing the underlying condition. You'll need a rheumatologist or vascular specialist to talk you through the options.

And it's not something to leave untreated, either. The diminished circulation could cause tissue damage or even gangrene, according to the Mayo Clinic. If the condition gets to that level—which is rare—"it could potentially result in the loss of a digit or limb," says Dr. Dempsey. So if your fingers change colors more often than a mood ring, don't don another pair of mittens and tough it out—schedule an appointment with your doctor, stat.

In the meantime, try and stay warm with a stylish beanie. Or, alternatively, skip winter.

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