I wear fuzzy slippers around the house, not because I think myself fancy, or even because prefer the feeling of soft, fuzzy fur to bare feet. I do this because my feet are always — and I mean always — freezing. In the winter, I stuff toe warmers into my thickest socks, only to find that my feet are still frigid, even with multiple layers of insulation.
My cold feet crisis protocol usually entails taking a hot shower to shock them into a warmer state, followed by immediately putting on warm socks and slippers. This can do the trick, but it doesn’t always. If you also suffer from perpetually frozen feet, there are a few different possible causes. Most of them are benign, while others could warrant intervention from a doctor.
Raynaud’s disease is a common condition
If you’re younger and relatively healthy (like me), cold extremities are usually a sign of Raynaud’s disease. It’s a condition caused by a narrowing of the arteries in the extremities, usually the toes or fingers. This narrowing limits the blood flow to the affected area, and the symptoms (frigid feet) are usually triggered by cold temperatures and stress.
Other symptoms include prickly, tingly feelings and occasional numbness in the affected extremities, as well as colour changes. The Mayo Clinic elaborates on the condition:
During an attack of Raynaud’s, affected areas of your skin usually first turn white. Then, they often turn blue and feel cold and numb. As you warm and your circulation improves, the affected areas may turn red, throb, tingle or swell.
Although Raynaud’s most commonly affects your fingers and toes, it can also affect other areas of your body, such as your nose, lips, ears and even nipples. After you warm up, the return of normal blood flow to the area can take 15 minutes.
Usually, Raynaud’s disease is nothing to worry about, even if the cold becomes an all-consuming bother. But it can warrant medical attention in rarer circumstances.
Primary Raynaud’s vs. Secondary Raynaud’s
There are two classes of diagnoses for this particular disease. Primary Raynaud’s is the benign kind, and sufferers can usually resolve the symptoms on their own. The more severe kind is Secondary Raynaud’s (also known as Reynaud’s phenomenon), and it’s usually caused by an underlying medical condition.
As the Mayo Clinic notes, there are several conditions that present Raynaud’s as a mere symptom, rather than a standalone disease, including connective tissue diseases, artery disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, and repetitive stress injuries. It can also be stimulated by smoking, injuries to the hands and feet, and certain medications.
If you suspect your cold extremities might be the symptom of a larger underlying issue that’s yet to be diagnosed, talk to your doctor immediately.
Peripheral artery disease
Another cause of cold feet — one that affects roughly 8.5 million Americans, according to Harvard Medical School — is peripheral artery disease, which is caused by fatty deposits that become lodged in narrowed arteries, limiting the supply of blood to the limbs. Studies have shown that the chances of developing PAD are exacerbated by obesity and age.
Harvard Medical school notes that some of the symptoms of peripheral artery disease are similar to Reynaud’s, but it gets a lot more serious pretty quickly:
One cause of decreased circulation is atherosclerosis, where arteries are narrowed by fatty deposits and impede blood flow in the limbs. As a result, your feet may appear blue or purple when you are sitting, and pale or white when you are lying down. You may feel pain in your calves when you walk. Your doctor can usually detect this condition (peripheral artery disease) by checking the pulse in your legs.
Still, there are yet more serious conditions that could be indicated by cold extremities, such “as scleroderma, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis; or an underactive thyroid,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. Again, if you fear these circumstances may apply to you, see your doctor right away.
What to do if you have a minor form of Raynaud’s
Since the more benign Primary Raynaud’s is basically just a hindrance that registers as a discomfort, doctors don’t advise that you do anything drastic about it. According to G. Jay Bishop, MD, there are some best practices you can employ, which he laid out for the Cleveland Clinic:
- Keep your tootsies toasty: Wear appropriate footwear and wool socks (or layers of socks) as needed.
- Keep your hands warm, too: Even simple changes, like wearing mittens instead of gloves, can help.
- Consider your core temperature: Wear layered clothing — especially thin, warm layers — to help preserve your core temperature.
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine: These are vasoconstrictors that can exacerbate the effects of cold on your extremities.
Aside from that, there’s no cure, so if you’re like me, it is something you’ll have to live with. Short of moving to Queensland, you might just have to get really good at bundling up.
This article has been updated since its original publish date.