Dealing With Cold Intolerance and Knowing When It’s a Bigger Problem...
You don’t just get cold every now and then, it’s a habitual thing and it’s often when others are not on the same chill level as you. You’re the person rugged up in a blanket at work when it’s a balmy 70 degrees outside. The person who gives icy handshakes and then proceeds to apologize for your hands being so cold, putting it down to self-diagnosis of poor circulation. Even as simple as picking up an icy cold can of coke can make your fingers buckle up.
The list goes on. So what is it? Is your internal thermostat just completely out of whack?
By definition, cold intolerance is an abnormal sensitivity to cold environments or cold temperatures and it’s not uncommon to experience varying degrees of this throughout your life. For some, it can be a daily discomfort.
Understanding Cold Intolerance
Feeling cold is a subjective perception. But this doesn’t change the fact that every human body is hardwired to send signals to our blood vessels to restrict blood flow to the skin in a chilly situation - also known as vasoconstriction - which prevents further heat loss in your body. Yet, this response varies from person to person depending on a number of factors.
Some of these include how much body fat we have (great insulation), your age (your body loses the ability to conserve heat as you mature), fluctuations in hormones and your gender (vasoconstriction is more pronounced in women). These aren’t the only factors to take into consideration though.
If you can relate to this search history, you’re not alone. So what other reasons could there be for such discomfort?
Hypothyroidism (an underactive Thyroid) - One of the main functions for the thyroid is to act as a thermostat and regulate how your body burns calories. The body doesn’t tolerate the cold as easily when it's not burning enough fuel.
Iron Deficiency Anemia - If you’re lacking mineral iron in your bloodstream, the rest of your body can’t get the oxygen it needs to function properly. It’s possible to experience symptoms for years without ever being diagnosed. One of these being cold hands and feet.
Stress - Chronic stress can also be a contributor to thyroid issues. There are emotional causes of stress that can take their toll on the body, but the physical stress from causes such as infections, blood sugar swings and gut dysfunction can be an underlying factor.
Sleep Deprivation - Related to the above, when we’re feeling stressed this can also mean losing sleep or decreased quality of sleep. This not only has negative effects on cognition and your immune system but it can tamper with your body temperature.
There is also another little-known medical condition that was discovered hundreds of years ago but the cause and cure are yet to be identified. It’s called Raynaud’s (ray-nodes) Disease and the symptoms are painfully distinct.
The Raynaud’s Phenomenon
According to The Raynaud’s Association, an estimated 5-10% of all Americans suffer from Raynaud’s Phenomenon. That’s 15- 30 million people! For reasons not yet understood - it’s overwhelmingly women who suffer from it too. And among those millions of people, only one out of every ten will seek treatment for it.
While very little is known about the condition, what we do know is that Raynaud’s is a disorder of the small blood vessels primarily in your fingers, toes, nose, ears and nipples. When these primary affected areas are exposed to cold conditions, the blood vessels go into painful spasms that can cause numbness, throbbing and tingling.
The average person who is exposed to cold temperatures will typically have red hands or go blotchy. Raynaud’s-type color changes are much more exaggerated and distinct. Although color changes can vary from person to person, the fingers can turn from white and blue within minutes of cold exposure until they become red as they warm up. This reaction can also happen to someone suffering Raynaud’s when they experience high levels of stress or anxiety.
This painful and visual reaction to your digits can be confronting and can last anywhere from several minutes to over an hour. There are two major kinds of Raynaud’s that are used to identify the severity of the condition; primary and secondary. Understanding the difference between the two is important.
Primary vs Secondary Raynaud’s
Primary Raynaud’s is the most common type classified in 90% of the total amount of cases. It’s not linked to any other underlying medical conditions and unfortunately, the cause of it is still unknown. Primary Raynaud’s still causes great discomfort, but with lifestyle adjustments, it can be somewhat managed.
Whereas Secondary Raynaud’s occurs in association with another health condition or autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma or lupus. Secondary Raynaud’s sufferers experience more severe health problems that can cause long-term damage. Fortunately, only a small percentage of the population suffering Raynaud’s are classified with the secondary condition.
Although we live in the age of Google and it can be tempting to self-diagnose, it’s important to never dismiss the symptoms you’re experiencing. Go and see a medical professional to give you peace of mind. Sometimes the onset of Raynaud’s occurs months or even years before a secondary autoimmune disease presents itself.
Unfortunately, no research has been able to identify the cause of Raynaud’s yet which can be extremely frustrating for those suffering from this condition. At the end of the day, for someone suffering Primary Raynaud’s, it becomes more about prevention and learning from others who experience it too.
Stories from Sufferers with Raynaud’s
We’ve collated some stories from those who have published about living with Raynaud’s; two with Primary Raynaud’s and one with Secondary Raynaud’s.
‘Living with Raynaud’s is just part of my being an athlete’
Julia Hubbel is an athlete living with Raynaud’s in Colorado. She anecdotally explains something as simple as heading out for a run - something that should warm her body - can result in her sprinting back home to run her frozen fingers under hot water. She had barely run a mile.
She’s spent hundreds of dollars on battery-operated gloves and jammed her fingers under her armpits countless times as a warming technique but none of this is the perfect solution for her. Yet, she doesn’t let Raynaud’s get in the way of her desire to live an active life.
“Raynaud’s did not keep me off the Everest Base Camp climb. Nor did it prevent me from summitting Kilimanjaro. It didnt’ prevent me from riding for hours on the windswept mountainsides of Patagonia by the Chilean border.”
‘Achy digits that can make a fully-bearded man cry’
Steve Graepel recently published an article explaining the Raynaud’s phenomenon and how it can affect him.
“It happens when I’m walking with the dog, while grasping cold tools, or responding to texts on the mountain. The cold saps the warmth out of my digits. Then the frigidity sets in, followed by pale skin capped by achy digits that can make a fully-bearded man cry.”
This is Steve Graepel’s hand when he’s experiencing symptoms of Raynaud’s. Image credit: GearJunkie
‘The truth about my dead hands’
Felisha, unfortunately, suffers from Secondary Raynaud’s which she was diagnosed with during her senior year. She explains how it took a few months of doctors appointments, medication and logging her migraines before the doctor finally realized it was Raynaud’s Disease.
“Finally, he diagnosed me with this rare disease, though now we know it affects about 5-10% of the population. It also mainly affects women over the age of 40 that smoke, two things that I do not qualify for, so the diagnosis was very weird for him.”
Felisha’s hand on a 40 degree day turn blue-ish purple. Image credit: Fellybee.com
Triggers to Avoid and Coping Techniques
Awareness of Raynaud’s is increasing all the time and like these sufferers stories, they are part of a community who are trying to take action on the condition and encouraging others to do so too. Whether you’re inside the home, at work or outdoors; there are a variety of coping techniques you can try. Some may work better for you than others.
At this stage when there is little-known information on the cause, so prevention is key. The Raynaud’s Association offers a number of simple techniques which you can argue are a lot of common sense (i.e dress warmly and wear layers). But we’re not here to tell you to stay indoors when it gets cold; we want to find ways to help you live your best life!
Try out a few things and see what works for you. Of course, an obvious one is dressing warmly and layering. Carry around mitts or gloves when you need to handle frozen items in the supermarket. Invest in some insulated drinking glasses or mugs for handling cold drinks.
Awareness is so Important
The good news is that with greater awareness of the condition means that more people are developing new and innovative ways to help. Looking at what is available out there for personal heating products can be another way to combat Raynaud’s symptoms.
But if we’ve learnt one thing from the stories of sufferers is that you shouldn’t let Raynaud’s dictate what you want to do in life. Of course, it’s utterly annoying, but it’s manageable. The more we talk about it and raise awareness of the symptoms and how sufferers are preventing attacks, the more knowledge and support we can share among the community. But we can’t do this alone.
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Together, we can help create a world where temperature has no limitations on the human experience.