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Cold hands, cold feet: Normal or not?

Many of us complain of cold hands and cold feet, especially when the weather turns cooler. But for some people, cold hands and feet aren’t seasonal; it’s a year-round problem that may be a sign of something more serious than simply needing warmer socks and gloves.

Poor circulation

Cold hands and feet can have several causes. A common cause is poor circulation, which may be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. If you can’t seem to keep your extremities warm, visit your doctor for a complete evaluation. He or she will want to find the reason behind your cold hands and feet. Poor circulation can be caused by:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • prior trauma or injury to your hands and feet
  • frostbite
  • damage to the nerves that supply blood to vessels in your hands and feet
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • work with vibrating power machinery
  • excessive typing or piano playing
  • smoking, which causes blood vessels to constrict

Chilly hands and feet can also be a side effect of some drugs, including beta-blockers, hormone replacement therapy, migraine relievers, chemotherapy agents and drugs that cause blood vessels to narrow, including some over-the-counter cold remedies.

If your hands and feet feel severely cold, turn blue, swell or lose sensation, it could be a sign of Raynaud’s disease, a disorder of the vessels that supply blood to the skin. Although uncommon, women are more likely to have the condition than men. Symptoms include attacks or spasms in response to cold or stress. A numb, prickly feeling or stinging pain accompanies warming or stress relief. For most people, Raynaud’s disease is more a nuisance than a disability, but for some, the disorder results from an autoimmune disease such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or the connective tissue diseases scleroderma and Sjögren’s. If you have Raynaud’s disease, drugs that widen blood vessels such as calcium channel blockers and vasodilators may be helpful in treating the condition.

Iron deficiency and hypothyroidism

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may suggest blood tests to check for iron-deficiency anemia and hypothyroidism (a slower-than-normal thyroid). Both conditions are common, especially in women. One in five women and half of all pregnant women are iron deficient, a condition where the blood does not have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen. Additional symptoms include extreme fatigue, pale skin, weakness, shortness of breath and light-headedness. About 7 million Americans, mainly women over age 40, have a slow or underactive thyroid, the gland responsible for metabolism and heart rate. Other signs include constipation; pale, dry skin; a puffy face; a hoarse voice; elevated cholesterol; unexplained weight gain; heavier menstrual periods; and depression.

Warm up

If your doctor rules out medical concerns, you may simply need to improve your circulation, which you can do by quitting smoking, avoiding caffeine and increasing exercise. Also avoid constricting footwear, and wiggle your toes from time to time.