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Cold Fingers

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Last updated August 27, 2020

Cold fingers quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your cold fingers.

Understand your cold fingers symptoms, including 6 causes & common questions.

8 most common causes

Illustration of a doctor beside a bedridden patient.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
Reynaud's Phenomenon
Pinched Nerve
Hypothyroidism
Peripheral Artery Disease
Iron Deficiency Anemia
Illustration of a person thinking with cross bandaids.
Frostnip of the upper limbs
Illustration of a health care worker swabbing an individual.
Frostbite of the upper limbs

Cold fingers quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your cold fingers.

Take cold fingers quiz

Hallmarks of cold fingers

Having "cold fingers" does not simply mean that your hands feel chilly. The fingers may feel virtually frozen, with sharp pins-and-needles pain. There may be swelling and color changes as well, and the numbness that goes along with the cold can make it very hard to feel anything with your fingertips.

This symptom is virtually always due to the veins and arteries tightening up and closing down. This constriction, or vasospasm, reduces circulation to the hands and fingers and makes them feel very cold and numb.

Common characteristics of cold fingers

If you're experiencing cold fingers, they can likely be described by:

  • Feeling as though they have been dipped in ice water
  • Numbness and tingling in the fingertips: Also known as a pins-and-needles sensation
  • Pain, throbbing, and swelling in the hands and fingers
  • Joint pain in the hands, wrists, and fingers
  • Change of color in the fingers: From reddened to very pale to blue-white
  • Sore, broken skin at the fingertips
  • Weak or absent pulses at the elbows, wrists, and fingers

Who is most often affected by cold fingers symptoms?

The following individuals are more likely to experience cold fingers.

  • Women under the age of 30
  • Anyone with a family history of similar circulatory conditions
  • Anyone taking certain medications for migraine headaches

When are cold fingers symptoms most likely to occur?

You're more likely to experience cold fingers when:

  • Surrounded by cold air: Either indoors or outdoors. Even a cool draft, especially on the hands, may bring it about.
  • During tense, stressful situations
  • During emotional upset

Are cold fingers serious?

The severity of your cold finger symptoms is dependent on the cause and how much they affect your daily life.

  • Not serious: Occasionally experiencing cold and mildly discolored fingers is probably not serious, as long as the fingers warm up and feel normal quickly once you are out of the cold.
  • Moderately serious: Fingers that are often painfully cold can certainly interfere with one's ability to work and with quality of life in general.
  • Serious: If left untreated, very poor circulation can lead to tissue damage, tissue death, and gangrene.

Cold fingers causes and conditions

Autoimmune diseases

An autoimmune disease is one in which the body's defenses turn against itself. The nerves, cartilage, skin, joints, or other organs can be attacked as though they were invaders, causing illness and damage. Some autoimmune diseases cause inflammation of the veins and arteries. This inflammation interferes with circulation and causes long-term damage. Raynaud's Syndrome causes cold fingers when the arteries running to the extremities (including feet) spasm and reduce blood flow. Skin color changes are common.

Other illnesses

Any number of other illnesses can affect the circulation, especially those involving metabolic disturbances or gradual organ failure. Tumors, cysts, and other growths in the arms, hands, and wrists can block the circulation and cause pain, numbness, and the sensation of cold in the fingers.

Trauma-related causes

Causes of cold fingers related to trauma may include the following.

  • Injury: An injury that has damaged the veins and arteries in the hand.
  • Using heavy machinery or power tools: A long history of using power tools that cause heavy vibration to the hands, since this can be damaging and disruptive to circulation in the hands, wrists, and fingers.

Rare and unusual causes

The least common causes of cold fingers include the following, although possible.

  • Severe emotional upset and/or very stressful situations
  • Idiopathic: The condition of painful cold fingers may be idiopathic, which simply means that it happens to you for no clear reason [8].

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Thoracic outlet syndrome

The "thoracic outlet" is the space on either side of the base of the neck where nerves, arteries, and veins travel beneath the collarbone. If these become compressed or damaged, the condition is called thoracic outlet syndrome or TOS.

The most common causes are trauma, such as a car accident or fall; and repetition or overuse, such as a sports injury.

Symptoms vary depending on the structures being compressed:

  • Neurogenic TOS affects the nerves. It is the most common form and creates numbness, tingling, pain, and weakness in the arms, hand, and fingers.
  • Vascular TOS affects the arteries and veins. It creates the same symptoms as neurogenic TOS as well as cold, pale hands and arms with weak pulse.

It is important to see a medical provider about these symptoms so that the damage does not become permanent.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, imaging such as x-ray or ultrasound, and sometimes nerve conduction and blood flow studies.

Treatment involves physical therapy, pain relievers, and sometimes surgery.

Cold fingers quiz

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Raynaud phenomenon

Raynaud phenomenon, also called Secondary Raynaud syndrome, is a condition that causes small arteries in the skin to abnormally constrict on exposure to cold water or air. This limits blood flow to the hands, fingers, feet, toes, nose, and ears.

Secondary Raynaud syndrome is rare and is caused by another underlying medical condition, often a connective tissue disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, or lupus.

Women are more likely than men to be affected, especially if living in cold climates. Family history and smoking are also risk factors.

Symptoms include the hands and feet becoming numb and cold. The skin color changes from pale to bluish, and then to red as the skin warms again.

If not treated, patients may get ulcerated sores or deformities of the fingers and toes, or even gangrene, due to the lack of circulation.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and blood tests.

Treatment includes medications to help increase circulation; treatment of any underlying conditions; and lifestyle changes to gain better protection for the extremities in cold conditions.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: distal numbness, cold toe, cold fingers, spontaneous toe pain, spontaneous finger pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Pinched nerve in the neck

A pinched nerve in the neck is also called cervical radiculopathy. It means that a nerve in the neck, at a point where it branches off from the spinal cord, is being compressed by the surrounding bones, muscles, or other tissues.

It can be caused by a traumatic injury, such as from sports or an automobile accident, especially if the injury results in a herniated disk. It may also arise from the normal wear and tear of aging.

Symptoms include sharp, burning pain with numbness and tingling from the neck to the shoulder, as well as weakness and numbness into the arm and hand.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and simple neurological tests to check the reflexes. Imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may be done, as well as electromyography to measure nerve impulses in the muscles.

A pinched nerve in the neck often improves with simply a few days or weeks of rest. Physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and steroid injections into the spine can all be very helpful.

Peripheral artery disease (reduced blood flow in the legs)

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a chronic condition that reduces blood flow in the arteries, usually arteries that lead to the legs. This reduced blood flow happens when clumps of fat (called plaques) build up inside these arteries, causing them to narrow. Symptoms include leg numbness, foot and thigh pain, cold feet, and muscle fatigue. These symptoms often occur when walking or exercising. The risk of developing PAD is higher in those who smoke or have diabetes. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight, and not getting much exercise also can put one at higher risk.

You should consider visiting a healthcare provider in the next two weeks to discuss your symptoms. Your provider can evaluate PAD with a review of your symptoms and a physical exam. An MRI may be performed as well. Once diagnosed, treatment involves medication, surgery, or procedures to open or bypass blocked arteries. Lifestyle changes regarding diet, exercise, and smoking cessation may also help.

Iron deficiency anemia

Iron deficiency anemia means that the body does not have enough iron to form hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.

The condition is caused by:

  • Acute blood loss through injury, surgery, or childbirth.
  • Chronic blood loss through an ulcer, overuse of aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs,) or heavy menstrual periods.
  • Inability to absorb dietary iron due to intestinal surgery or disease, or interference from certain medications.
  • A diet low in iron-supplying foods.

Symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, lack of endurance, and chest pain with rapid and irregular heartbeat.

If not treated, iron deficiency anemia can lead to heart disease because the heart has to pump extra blood to get enough oxygen to the tissues. Developmental problems in children can also occur.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and blood tests.

Treatment includes a diet higher in iron-rich foods, such as red meat and dark green leafy vegetables, along with iron supplements. Severe cases may require hospitalization for blood transfusion and/or intravenous iron therapy.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism, or "underactive thyroid," means that the thyroid gland in the neck does not produce enough of its hormones. This causes a slowing of the body's metabolism.

The condition can occur due to autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; some medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. It is often found among older women with a family history of the disease.

Common symptoms include fatigue, constantly feeling cold, weight gain, slow heart rate, and depression. If left untreated, these and other symptoms can worsen until they lead to very low blood pressure and body temperature, and even coma.

Diagnosis is made through a simple blood test.

Hypothyroidism is easily managed with daily oral medication. The patient usually starts feeling better after a couple of weeks and may even lose some extra weight. It's important for the patient to be monitored by a doctor and have routine blood testing so that the medication can be kept at the correct levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Cold fingers quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your cold fingers.

Take cold fingers quiz

Frostnip of the upper limbs

Frostnip is damage of the outermost layers of the skin caused by exposure to the cold (at or below 32F or 0C). It is most commonly found in people doing leisurely activities like camping, hunting, or snow sports.

Those with suspected frostnip should have wet clothing removed. Rubbing affected areas worsens damage to the tissue. You should go to an urgent care. If rewarming can occur without chance of refreezing, it can be tried in the field. At urgent care, the doctors will guide you in gently re-warming the wounded area in 98-102F (37C-39C) water. Further, ibuprofen, antibiotics, and a tetanus shot may be necessary

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: hand numbness, hand pain, hand redness, cold hands, cold fingers

Symptoms that always occur with frostnip of the upper limbs: cold fingers

Urgency: In-person visit

Frostbite of the upper limbs

Frostbite is tissue damage caused by exposure to the cold (at or below 32F or 0C). It is most commonly found in people doing leisurely activities like camping, hunting, or snow sports. It is also more likely in those who are intoxicated or have a mental disorder.

Those with suspected frostbite should have wet clothing removed. Rubbing affected areas worsens damage to the tissue. You should go to the ER by car, immediately. If rewarming can occur without chance of refreezing, it can be tried in the field. There, the doctors will guide you in gently re-warming the wounded area in 98-102F (37C-39C) water. Further, ibuprofen, antibiotics, a tetanus shot, and possibly surgery will be done to treat the pain and dead tissue. IV fluids will also be started. Hydrotherapy will be done daily to help with the wounded area.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: hand numbness, hand pain, hand redness, cold fingers, cold hands

Symptoms that always occur with mild frostbite of the upper limbs: cold fingers

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Cold fingers treatments and relief

When cold fingers are an emergency

Seek immediate cold fingers treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if:

  • You cannot detect a pulse in your hands or fingers, the hand is very numb and looks very white, and it feels cold to someone else's touch
  • The fingers begin to show open sores, especially if the sores appear blackened

When to see a doctor for cold fingers

You should schedule an appointment for:

  • Treatment of cold fingers that are persistent or worsening
  • Treatment of any underlying illness that may be causing the condition
  • Discussion of getting physical therapy: This can improve circulation and help ease the symptoms.
  • Discussion of your medications: If any of them tend to cause constriction of the veins and arteries, your medical provider may be able to substitute a different one.
  • Discussion of counseling: This can help with stress management.
  • Discussion of smoking cessation: Cigarette smoking causes constriction of the veins and arteries.

At-home treatments for cold fingers

You can begin to address your cold finger symptoms at home with the following methods.

  • Stop smoking: Don't hesitate to ask your medical provider for help with this if you need it.
  • Keep your body warm: If your core temperature drops, blood will be withdrawn first from the hands and feet and sent to vital internal organs such as the heart and lungs in order to keep them functioning.
  • Wear fingerless gloves when indoors: They will still help keep the fingers warm, since the rest of the hand is warm, while allowing you to type or do other work.
  • Try not to touch cold water, ice cubes, drinking glasses, or anything else that's cold
  • Look into comfort devices such as heated gloves
  • Address overall health: Make improvements in diet, sleep, and exercise, because this will help with overall health, circulation, and tolerance of stress.

Questions your doctor may ask about cold fingers

  • Stress can cause changes in your body. Are you under a lot of stress?
  • Do you currently smoke?
  • Has anyone in your family been diagnosed with Raynaud Phenomenon?
  • Were you recently exposed to the freezing cold (under 32F or 0C)?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Cold fingers statistics

People who have experienced cold fingers have also experienced:

  • 5% Hand Numbness
  • 4% Cold Toe
  • 3% Hand Tingling

People who have experienced cold fingers were most often matched with:

  • 42% Iron Deficiency Anemia
  • 42% Hypothyroidism
  • 14% Raynaud Phenomenon

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Hear what 2 others are saying
Swollen handsPosted September 25, 2021 by N.
I'm trying my best to find out what I have. When I sometimes hold a cold drink for too long or rearrange the contents of my fridge/freezer, my hands will swell up really bad, get really red and become excruciatingly painful. When it happens I can't even use my phone or properly open a door, even using both hands. Any help would be appreciated!
Numb fingers and toesPosted November 9, 2020 by J.
My family has a history of iron deficiency. With that being said, when it is winter in California the weather drops from 90-70 degrees all the way down to 50-40 degrees. When I was younger and it would get cold like this, my toes and fingers would go completely numb and it would take a while for the feeling to return. When I was younger, I was also morbidly obese so I assumed that that had something to do with it. But now, I am older and in a healthy weight range for my height. However, today it was extremely cold in California and I decided to drink some refrigerated water. Right after, my pointer finger started to tingle, then after about 30 minutes my finger was completely numb and it started to turn purple. Once I sat in front of the fireplace the feeling in my hand returned immediately and my finger went back to its normal color. I was wondering if this is something I should be concerned about?
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

  1. Raynaud phenomenon symptoms & causes. Boston Childrens Hospital. Boston Childrens Hospital Link
  2. Vascular disorders. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Published 2013. ASSH Link
  3. Raynaud phenomenon. Scleroderma Foundation. Published March 2017. Scleroderma Foundation Link
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  5. Myositis. ColumbiaDoctors. ColumbiaDoctors Link
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  7. About peripheral artery disease. Fairview Health Services. Published 2006. Fairview Health Services Link
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