Cold Hands and Feet
Cold Hands & Feet Overview
When your hands or feet (and sometimes other parts of the body, especially your ears and nose) get too cold, they can be injured or react in different ways.
- The most severe cold injury is frostbite, which is true tissue freezing (ice crystals form in the skin and other tissues of the body). Frostbite causes permanent damage to blood vessels and other structures. Frostnip is also ice crystal formation in tissues but only in the very outer layer of the skin. It causes no permanent damage.
- Immersion injury results from exposure of wet feet (or hands) to cold temperatures at or above freezing. It develops over hours to days and damages the nerves and muscles. Like frostbite, immersion injury causes permanent damage.
- Other conditions of cold hands or feet are pernio, Raynaud's phenomenon, cryoglobulin formation, and cold urticaria.
Cold Hands & Feet Causes
Humans are tropical animals. We are adapted to a warm climate. When exposed to cold, the body tries to stay warm. If the body is cooling off, circulation decreases in the arms, legs, ears, and nose so that the rest of the
core body can stay warm. When temperatures are below freezing, ice may form in these areas with less circulation.
- Nonfreezing cold injuries are also caused by cooling of the skin. In immersion injuries, the nerves and blood vessels are damaged after exposure to cold, wet conditions at or above freezing temperatures.
- Pernio is caused by exposure to cold for a long period of time without freezing or by very wet conditions.
- Raynaud's phenomenon is an abnormal narrowing of the blood vessels that constrict with cooling of the fingers or toes.
- Cryoglobulins are proteins, which are normally dissolved in the blood, that become solids or gels when cold. Cryoglobulinemia is the condition associated with cryoglobulins in the blood, whereby cold exposure leads to bluish discoloration of the fingers or toes.
- The formation of hives in response to cold exposure of the skin is called cold urticaria.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/19/2016
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