Cold Skin Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions
Cold skin questionnaire
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Understand your cold skin symptoms with Buoy, including 5 causes and common questions concerning your cold skin.
Cold skin symptoms
Coldness is defined as the condition of being of or at a low temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F (37 C), and the human body has various mechanisms in place that regulate this body temperature and prevent the body from becoming too cold or too hot.
Cold skin that is chronic and persistent can be a sign of sensitivity to cold temperatures and an inability of the body to regulate mechanisms against cold. Depending on the environment you are in, cold skin can also be a sign that the body is losing heat faster than it can produce. Regardless of the specific situation, cold skin symptoms should be followed up with professional medical attention.
People with cold skin symptoms may also experience:
- Feeling cold despite the weather, and often feeling cold when others around them feel comfortable.
- Cold skin only in specific parts of the body such as the hands or feet
- Cold skin that does not resolve despite adding extra layers of clothing
- Weak pulse
- Low energy
Call 911 immediately especially if you experience excessive shivering. Once you develop symptoms of weak pulse and fatigue, you may find it difficult to think clearly and get the appropriate care.
Causes of cold skin
Temperature regulation (or thermoregulation) is controlled by different parts of the body including the hypothalamus (brain), thyroid gland, body fat, blood vessels and skin. These components work together to control body temperature. Cold skin can occur when there is dysregulation or imbalance in any of these components. It is important to see your doctor in order to find the cause of your cold skin symptoms.
- The brain is the central control center for body temperature. Central causes of coldness result from dysregulation in these brain processes. For example, disorders of the hypothalamus can cause coldness because the body cannot mount proper responses.
There are multiple metabolic processes in place that maintain proper body temperature.
- Hormone synthesis: The thyroid gland makes hormones that allow your body to burn calories and create heat and fuel. A malfunctioning thyroid that does not produce enough hormone (hypothyroidism) can cause such cold skin symptoms.
- Fat synthesis: Fat is necessary to maintain the heat your body creates. Any condition that significantly decreases your body fat, such as anorexia, can lead to cold skin because your body has no means of maintaining the heat it creates
Cold skin related to environmental triggers such as exposure to cold weather or water can disrupt the body's natural mechanisms and/or put the body at risk for losing heat when exposed to cold situations. This is hypothermia and is a potentially life-threatening condition that requires immediate attention.
- Cold weather or water: Many people often underestimate how such conditions can affect the body. Any water that is less than normal body temperature can cause rapid heat loss. Most people cannot willingly stand such temperatures for prolonged periods of time and will get out of the water when it becomes unbearable. However, for those finding themselves stranded in a large body of water, quick escape is often not an option.
- Inappropriate attire: Wearing clothes that aren't warm enough for weather or water conditions can easily cause coldness. Conversely, being unable to remove wet clothes promptly and change into warm clothes can cause coldness and shivering symptoms as well.
- Inappropriate living conditions: Houses that are improperly heated during wintertime can cause these symptoms in at risk populations such as infants and the elderly.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
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.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Hypoglycemia (severely low blood sugar) can occur in Type 1 (more common) and Type 2 Diabetes. It is usually caused by poorly timed use of blood-sugar-controlling medication.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, irritability, anxiety, dizziness, racing heart beat
Symptoms that always occur with diabetic hypoglycemia: being severely ill
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Hypothermia is defined as a body core temperature lower than 95 degrees Fahrenheit or 35 degrees Celcius.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: fatigue, coldness, pale skin, turning blue or purple from coldness, shivering
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Moderate to severe hypothermia
With prolonged exposure to freezing cold, the body can lose the ability to maintain a safe core temperature. If this continues for long enough, you can become confused or even lose consciousness
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: coldness, alertness level change, pale skin, slow heartrate (under 60bpm)
Symptoms that never occur with moderate to severe hypothermia: shivering
Urgency: Emergency medical service
Sepsis is a serious illness that is caused by the body's reaction to an infection and cause system-wide inflammation.
Top Symptoms: being severely ill, shortness of breath, fever, feeling confused and not making sense while talking, abnormally high heartrate
Symptoms that always occur with sepsis: being severely ill
Urgency: Emergency medical service
Cold skin treatments and relief
At home cold skin remedies such as using a heater or wearing warmer clothes often do not work for people with chronic cold skin. Most causes of cold skin require that you see a physician promptly in order to get appropriate evaluation and treatment.
If your cold skin is a symptom of an underlying condition, your treatment will depend on the cause.
After determining the cause of your cold intolerance your doctor may suggest:
- Hormone replacement: Hormones are key players in the regulation of body temperature. If your cold intolerance is due to hormone imbalance, your doctor will prescribe the appropriate hormone(s) to get your body back on track.
- Surgery: Infrequently,some central causes of cold intolerance such as compression of the hypothalamus by a mass may require surgical removal.
- Rehabilitation program: If your cold intolerance is related to conditions that have significantly decreased body fat percentage, your doctor may suggest a rehabilitation program to help you gain weight safely and healthily.
If your cold skin is a symptom of environmental triggers, there are many preventative measures you can take to prevent your body temperature from going too low.
The acronym COLD cover, overexertion, layers, dry is an excellent way to remember the different methods you can use to protect yourself and family from hypothermia.
- Cover: Wear a hat or other protective clothing to prevent body heat from escaping the head, face and neck. Use mittens instead of gloves to cover your hands.
- Overexertion: In cold weather, avoid activities like running or jumping that cause sweating. The combination of wet clothing and cold weather can cause your body to lose heat more quickly.
- Layers: Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing in layers. Outer clothing made of tightly woven, water-repellent material is best for wind protection. For inner layers, choose materials such as wool, silk or polypropylene these materials hold body heat better than cotton does.
- Dry: Get out of wet clothing as soon as possible and try to stay as dry as possible. Pay special attention to your hands and feet, as these body parts can easily get wet again.
Questions your doctor may ask about cold skin
- Are you experiencing unusually quick or severe fatigue when doing physical activity or exercising?
- Are you short for your age?
- Did you just suffer from a high impact injury (e.g., a fall, collision, accident or sports trauma)?
- Do you currently smoke?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Dr. Gambrah-Lyles is a resident pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (2019). She graduated cum laude and received her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis (2013). Her research explores the intersections between neurology, public health, and infectious disease. She has investigated nutrition and cerebral palsy in Botswana, and completed a year-long project in Brazil, researching growth and developmental outcomes of Zika virus infection in pediatric patients as a Doris Duke International Scholar. Dr. Gambrah-Lyles speaks four languages, loves staying active, and enjoys sharing her love for medicine through teaching and writing.
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- Paal P, Gordon L, Strapazzon G, et al. Accidental Hypothermia - An Update. Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation & Emergency Medicine. 2016;24(1):111. NCBI Link.
- McCullough L, Arora S. Diagnosis and Treatment of Hypothermia. American Family Physician. 2004;70(12):2325-2332. AAFP Link.
- Hypothermia. Mayo Clinic. Published January 6, 2018. Mayo Clinic Link.