The weather isn't the only thing getting colder in the fall and winter — some people suffer from cold hands. This can be a normal response to cold temperatures, explained general practitioner Chun Tang, MD, from Pall Mall Medical. He added, "We automatically constrict blood vessels to save loss of heat and focus heat to central areas." But cold hands could also signify a deeper issue.
Poor Circulation Can Cause Cold Hands
One common cause of cold hands is poor circulation, said Nicholas Pantaleo, MD, an internist and family medicine practitioner at Westmed Medical Group, said. This can stem from underlying medical conditions or simply genetics. He explained that poor circulation can be concerning since it may be a sign of other diseases, including diabetes or obesity. "In certain scenarios, the body will also decrease blood flow to the extremities, like your hands, to allow more blood flow to the more important organs like your brain, heart, and lungs," he said, to maintain your body's essential functions.
Stress Can Cause Cold Hands
"Cold hand surges are common when someone is experiencing a great deal of stress or anxiety," added Dr. Tang. Stress and anxiety can manifest in physical ways throughout the body when they cause hormones like epinephrine or adrenaline to be released, explained Dr. Pantaleo. Stress can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (your flight-or-fight response), which causes blood vessels to constrict in order to increase blood flow to the brain and vital organs, explained Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician with Invigor Medical. Stress is seen as a threat to your body, and your body constricting the blood vessels is a defense mechanism to ensure you'll stay alive.
Smoking and Drinking Can Cause Cold Hands
Smoking can also be a cause of cold hands, as it also constricts blood vessels. "Constricting blood vessels decreases blood flow to the hands and fingers, which can cause them to feel cold," said Dr. Poston. Drinking alcohol can also cause cold hands, because it dilates blood vessels which slows circulation. "An initial warm feeling from dilated blood vessels changes to cold as blood moves more slowly through the body, and therefore doesn't carry heat from muscles to other parts of the body," she said.
High Cholesterol Can Cause Cold Hands
Having high cholesterol can also affect blood flow. If you have a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries caused by your diet or genetics, it affects the lumen inside (think of the space within a hollow body part, like a blood vessel). Eating an excess of foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, including meat, eggs, dairy products, and even coconut oil, can raise your cholesterol levels, which can lead to coronary heart disease — and one symptom is numbness and coldness in the extremities.
Vitamin Deficiencies Can Cause Cold Hands
Dr. Pantaleo added that vitamin deficiencies can also cause cold hands. "A vitamin B12 deficiency can give you neurological symptoms, including the feeling of cold hands and feet, numbness, or tingling," added physician Nancy Bono, DO, and chair of family medicine at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. Anemia, or low iron, can also be a culprit, so Dr. Pantaleo advises talking to your doctor about taking vitamin supplements such as B12 or iron to help improve this issue.
Raynaud's Syndrome Can Cause Cold Hands
Another common health condition called Raynaud's syndrome causes cold hands, said Dr. Poston. It's a condition in which the blood vessels constrict too much, and the symptoms can vary from mild to severe. People will notice that their fingers turn white and then purple or blue, and eventually, the fingers turn red as blood flow is restored. Severe Raynaud's can lead to tissue damage and breakdown if the fingers are not getting enough blood.
Underlying Health Conditions Can Cause Cold Hands
Dr. Tang said cold hands could also be a symptom of an underactive or slow thyroid, as well as diseases including Buerger's disease, lupus, and scleroderma. Blood clots can also cause cold hands, and if you experience sudden, painful, cold white fingers or hands, he advised seeking immediate medical attention as it can lead to necrosis (death of cells) or gangrene (when substantial areas of tissue become necrotic).
How to Prevent Cold Hands
Maintaining a healthy weight, controlling your blood pressure, managing stress, eating a healthy diet, stopping cigarette and alcohol use, and protecting your hands when it's cold outside are all good strategies to keep your hands warm, said Dr. Poston. If anemia or B12 deficiency is the issue, talk to your doctor about adjusting your diet or taking supplements.
If you're stressed, find healthy ways to feel calmer, like doing relaxing yoga, reading, writing in a journal, talking to a therapist or friend, or doing something creative.
Exercising is great for maintaining a normal blood pressure and decreasing the risk of high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, which will reduce the risk for blood-vessel damage, said Dr. Poston. Exercising regularly can also improve circulation.
How to Relieve Cold Hands
An obvious solution is to warm your hands up, either by putting on mittens, wrapping them in a blanket, or running them under warm water. If you experience cold hands because of poor circulation, Dr. Pantaleo said you can try swinging your arms in big circles to help recirculate blood to your extremities. Another option is to run up and down your stairs swinging your arms or to go for a brisk walk, as exercise can help get your blood flowing. "A person can also try to massage their hands or repeatedly clench and unclench their fists to increase blood flow to the hands," said Dr. Pantaleo.
When to See Your Doctor About Cold Hands
Causes for concern may be one hand that is cold while the other is normal, or neurologic symptoms such as numbness and tingling in the hands, said Dr. Poston. If you're experiencing other symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, or extreme fatigue, that could point to more serious issues and you should consult your doctor. No matter what the cause, you don't have to live with cold hands. It's best to talk to your doctor so they can help you determine the cause so you can live more comfortably in a world of warmth!