What It Could Mean if Your Hands are Always Cold

The underyling cause could be benign—or a symptom of a more serious condition.

If your hands are always cold, even in the peak of summer, you’re not alone. Many people get chilly fingers during all of the seasons, due to a number of causes, from genetics—the tendency runs in families—to chronic illnesses.

Common benign reasons you might experience this discomfort include being elderly (more likely to have a slower metabolism) and being thin (less muscle and fat for insulation). For some people, lifestyle changes can help: avoiding nicotine and caffeine, which constrict your blood vessels, and getting regular exercise to improve circulation. For an instant fix, try jumping in place, shaking your hands or simply bundling up in warmer clothing.

If your hands are always cold or numb, however, it’s a good idea to see a doctor to rule out more serious causes. Cold hands are one of the symptoms of anemia and hypothyroidism. Diabetes, which reduces blood circulation, can also trigger it. And if your heart is weak from heart disease, your body may prioritize sending blood to your core over your limbs.

For many others, cold hands are a sign they have a largely harmless condition called Raynaud’s disease. When any of us goes out in the cold, our bodies activate the muscles in our smallest blood vessels to make them even smaller—a survival mechanism to keep blood, and thus warmer temperatures, in our core. For people with Raynaud’s, this reaction is too strong, and instead of just a bit less blood going to their fingers, far too little gets there.

Named after Maurice Raynaud, the French doctor who first discovered the condition in the mid-1800s, Raynaud’s disease is surprisingly common. Dr. John Osborne, director of State of the Heart Cardiology in Dallas, Texas, says it affects between four and 20 percent of people around the world.

One notable characteristic of the disease is fingers changing colour. “They call it the French flag,” says Osborne. “The fingers turn white because there’s no blood flow, then blue due to lack of oxygen and then red as the blood comes back into the fingers.” The onset of symptoms can be due to cold winter air, overly air-conditioned spaces in the summer or even just grabbing a bag of frozen peas at the grocery store.

Raynaud’s is more common in women, and it most often develops before the age of 30. In fact, if you develop Raynaud’s when you’re older—usually after 40—it can be a sign of another underlying issue. That could be a smaller problem—a previous incident of frostbite, the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome or a side effect from drugs like beta blockers or some migraine medications—or a sign of a more ser­ious autoimmune condition, like lupus.

A rare, more severe form of Raynaud’s affects less than one in 1,000 people. In these cases, blood can become completely blocked, causing sores on the hands. If they go untreated, it can lead to gangrene and, very rarely, amputation. Thankfully, there are effective medications for these cases that help increase blood flow—including losartan, usually used for high blood pressure, and sildenafil, often prescribed for erectile dysfunction. Topical options, like nitroglycerin cream, which improves blood flow, may also help.

For the majority of people living with Raynaud’s, however, medication won’t be necessary. “For them, it’ll be more annoying than anything else,” says Osborne.

Now that you know the possible reasons why your hands are always cold, find out 20 symptoms you should never ignore.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada