Cold Feet Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand your cold feet symptoms with Buoy, including 6 causes and common questions concerning your cold feet.

Cold Feet Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your cold feet

Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 6 Possible Cold Feet Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. Related Articles
  9. References

Cold Feet Symptoms

Cold feet can be uncomfortable and annoying to anyone they might touch, but are they really anything to worry about? In some cases, those chronically cold feet can be a sign of illness. [7,8] But in general, cold feet mean that your inner body has gotten a little too cool and your "core temperature" has dropped a little too low. To protect your vital organs (heart, lungs, and brain), your body diverts blood flow away from your hands and feet. [1] Nervousness can cause this diversion, too, which is why "getting cold feet" means suddenly backing out of something at the last minute. [2,6]

Characteristics:

  • Your feet feel cold, like "blocks of ice." [1]
  • You might feel numbness, tingling, or pins-and-needles. [1]
  • Foot color ranges from red to purple-blue to pale white. [1]
  • Someone who touches your feet feels that they are cool or cold. [2]

Duration:

  • This can last a few minutes or a few hours to even days or longer. [9]
  • Sometimes the cold feeling never really goes away. [9]
  • Your feet might warm up in warm environments but go right back to feeling cold again with exposure to cold air or water. [9]

Who is most often affected by cold feet symptoms?

  • Women. [9]
  • Older people. [10]
  • Anyone living or working in cold conditions. [10]
  • Anyone with poor circulation. [9]
  • Diabetics or others with peripheral nerve disease. [9]

Where in the world are these cold feet symptoms most common?

  • Cold climates produce the coldest feet, of course. [10]

When are cold feet symptoms most likely to occur?

  • Your cold feet symptoms may increase when you sit or lie down. [1]
  • Of course, winter weather can cause cold feet. [10]

Are cold feet symptoms serious?

  • Cold feet can point to a serious problem if the circulation to them is truly impaired; you have a nerve condition that's causing the problem; you have pain in your legs when walking; or your feet only seem cold to you and not to anyone else. [1,11]
  • Cold feet are rarely serious in a younger person with no other illnesses. [2,10]

Cold Feet Causes

Many conditions have cold feet as a symptom. Most of them have to do with circulation and blood flow, although thyroid, anemia, and nervous system disorders can be involved. [1,2,3]

Circulatory cold feet causes:

  • Poor circulation due to your feet being in a cold environment is the most common cause of cold feet. It limits the amount of blood flow and therefore heat to your extremities. [2]
  • Atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries *Smoking makes your blood vessels tighten and constrict. [1]
  • Cold weather causes blood vessels in your feet to constrict. [2]
  • Feeling cold or nervous causes blood vessels in your feet to tighten. [2]
  • Acute blood clots to the arteries in the legs can cause one foot to become acutely cold and painful. This is an emergency. [4]

Hormonal and deficiency related cold feet causes:

  • Thyroid imbalances too much or too little thyroid hormone interfere with metabolism. [2]
  • Megaloblastic anemia, which is a shortage of healthy red blood cells from Vitamin B 12 deficiency, can cause cold feet that often also burn. [5]

Nervous system cold feet causes:

  • Peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage, may cause you to feel numbness and tingling in your feet which you interpret as cold. [2]
  • Panic disorder sends your body into fight-or-flight mode, diverting blood into your internal organs and out of your feet leaving them cold. [6]

###Infectious cold feet causes: ###

  • Mononucleosis can lead to peripheral neuropathy. [7]
  • Meningitis may have symptoms of both fever and cold feet. [8]

Physiological cold feet causes:

  • Low body fat will make your body divert more blood flow to vital organs, trying to keep them warm. [1]
  • Sometimes having cold feet is simply normal and a trait that runs in families. [1]

We've listed some specific conditions that can cause cold feet, along with how to identify each of them:

6 Possible Cold Feet Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced cold feet. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Mild frostbite of the lower leg

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.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: foot pain, swollen foot, foot numbness, foot redness, limping

Symptoms that always occur with mild frostbite of the lower leg: cold toe

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

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

Peripheral arterial disease (pad)

Peripheral artery disease is also called PAD, intermittent claudication, or vascular disease. The large main artery from the heart is the aorta, and its smaller branches are the peripheral arteries.

In PAD these peripheral arteries are blocked with plaque, which is debris that builds up in the lining of these arteries and eventually cuts off the blood flow.

Risk factors for PAD include smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

PAD usually involves arteries that lead to the legs, but can affect any artery. Symptoms include numbness and pain in the legs, especially with exercise when more circulation is needed but the flow is blocked.

It is important to seek treatment for these symptoms. PAD can lead to increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and infection as well as to gangrene, a life-threatening medical emergency.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, blood tests, and sometimes a treadmill test, MRI, and arteriogram.

Treatment involves medication and surgery to open or bypass blocked arteries, and lifestyle changes regarding diet, exercise, and smoking cessation.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: leg numbness, spontaneous foot pain, decreased exercise tolerance, cold feet, thigh pain

Symptoms that never occur with peripheral arterial disease (pad): calf pain from an injury, thigh pain from an injury

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Cold Feet Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your cold feet

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

Iron deficiency anemia

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

The condition can be caused by acute blood loss through injury, surgery, or childbirth;chronic b...

Read more

Sepsis

Sepsis is a serious illness that is caused by the body's reaction to an infection and cause system-wide inflammation.

Rarity: Rare

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 Feet Treatments and Relief

Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911:

  • If you have cold hands and feet as well as fever this can be a sign of a serious infection or circulatory disorder. [8,12]
  • If your feet are very cold and discolored, especially if they are also painful. This can mean a near-complete loss of circulation in your feet. [1,13]

Schedule an appointment for:

  • Ongoing fatigue and feeling cold all over. [14]
  • Uncomfortably cold feet which change color from white to purple to red. [10]
  • Cold feet with ongoing numbness and tingling. [2]

Try these remedies at home for cold feet treatment:

  • Increase exercise to improve circulation. [16]
  • Layer silk or cotton socks beneath wool socks. [13,18]
  • Warm hats and gloves preserve body heat and help prevent constriction of the blood vessels in your feet. [15,18]
  • Drink warm beverages in cold weather. [18]
  • Quit smoking. [17]

FAQs About Cold Feet

Here are some frequently asked questions about cold feet.

What causes cold feet?

Cold feet are usually caused by reduced blood supply. This can be the result of blockage or constriction of our blood vessels in the feet or lower leg. [2] When in a cold environment, our body is designed to primarily keep our heads and torsos warm, because these areas include all organs essential for life. These organs do not function as well if they drop in temperature. To keep our brains, hearts, lungs, and digestive organs warm, the body may divert warm blood from the fingers, toes, arms, and legs to the torso so that the central organs can be warm. This is the most common cause of cold feet. [1]

What causes poor circulation in the feet?

Cold exposure is a common cause. [1] It can also be a symptom of certain autoimmune diseases, blood disorders, or hypothyroid disease. [3,9] Exposure to select drugs and environmental factors can cause poor circulation. [20] Accumulation of lipid and fibrous material inside the arteries (called peripheral arterial disease, or PAD) can restrict blood circulation as well. [11] Smoking is an important risk factor for poor circulation. [11]

How to improve circulation in the feet?

Keep your whole body warm. [18] Don't smoke smoking can make your symptoms worse. Avoid medicines that cause blood vessels to become narrow, such as cold medicines or diet pills. [19,20] Get your diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol under control (if you have these conditions.) [11] Walking helps increase circulation and relieve peripheral artery disease (PAD) symptoms too. Medication and surgeries can be considered if PAD is severe enough. [11]

Can cold feet be a sign of anemia?

Yes. Anemia is caused by a loss and/or impaired production of red blood cells. Blood loss and impaired production of red blood cells can both compromise blood flow to your feet, making your feet cold. [3,5] The compromise of blood flow comes from diversion of a limited blood supply. Blood will go to body parts where it is most needed, which is away from the arms and legs. [1]

When should you see a doctor for cold feet?

See a doctor if the problem persists, or you start to develop pain or open sores on your toes. [21] Additional symptoms, such as joint pain, muscle pain, fever, weakness, weight loss, rash, arthritis, or problems with heart or lungs might indicate underlying medical conditions that warrant medical attention as well. [9,22] Severe foot discoloration also warrants medical attention. [21]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Cold Feet

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Has any part of your body become paler than normal?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Are you eating inedible objects like ice, dirt, or paper?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your cold feet. These questions are also covered.

Cold Feet Quiz

Cold Feet Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced cold feet have also experienced:

  • 10% Cold Hands
  • 4% Fatigue
  • 2% Headache

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

  • 60% Mild Frostbite Of The Lower Leg
  • 30% Peripheral Arterial Disease (Pad)
  • 10% Raynaud Phenomenon

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

Cold Feet Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your cold feet

References

  1. Causes of Cold Feet. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Published July 2013. Harvard Health Publishing Link.
  2. Bishop S. Cold Feet That Aren't Cold to the Touch May Indicate Neurologic Problem. Mayo Clinic. Published April 1, 2011. Mayo Clinic Link.
  3. Wolfsdorf J, eds. What is Iron Deficiency Anemia? Nicklaus Children's Hospital. Updated May 23, 2018. Nicklaus Children's Hospital Link.
  4. Vascular Care Treatments. MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital. MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital Link.
  5. Megaloblastic (Pernicious) Anemia in Children. Stanford Children's Health. Stanford Children's Health Link.
  6. Coping With Panic Attacks. Life Changes Community Counselling Service. Life Changes Counselling Link.
  7. Mohanaruban K, Fisher DJ. A Combination of Cranial and Peripheral Nerve Palsies in Infectious Mononucleosis. Postgraduate Medical Journal. 1986;62(734):1129-1130. NCBI Link.
  8. Does Your Child Have a Serious Illness? NHS. Updated March 31, 2017. NHS Link.
  9. Jarvis S. What's Causing Your Cold Feet? Patient.info. Patient.info Link.
  10. Meadows A. Raynaud's Syndrome is More Than Just a Case of Cold Feet. UPMC Susquehanna. Published January 10, 2017. Susquehanna Health Link.
  11. Peripheral Arterial Disease: Why It Happens and What to Do. American Family Physician. 2000;61(4):1034. AAFP Link.
  12. The Leg Effect of Vascular Disease. Parkside Hospital. Published September 16, 2016. Parkside Hospital Link.
  13. Guly HR. Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Official Journal of the Wilderness Medical Society. 2012;23(4):365-370. WEM Journal Link.
  14. Heart Attack Synmptoms in Women. American Heart Association. Updated July 31, 2015. AHA Link.
  15. Prevention and Treatment of Cold Feet. IPFH.org. IPFH.org Link.
  16. Ischemic Foot. Michigan Podiatric Medical Association. MPMA Link.
  17. Peripheral Artery Disease. Allina Health. Published May 2018. Allina Health Link.
  18. Winter Safety. Parachute. Parachute Link.
  19. Cold Fingers, Cold Toes? Could Be Raynaud's. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing. Published March 2009. Harvard Health Publishing Link.
  20. Mozaffarieh M, Fontana Gasio P, Schtzau A, Orgl S, Flammer J, Kruchi K. Thermal Discomfort with Cold Extremities in Relation to Age, Gender, and Body Mass Index in a Random Sample of a Swiss Urban Population. Population Health Metrics. 2010;8:17. NCBI Link.
  21. Chilblains. NHS. Updated July 11, 2018. NHS Link.
  22. Thompson RP. Medical Conditions for Cold Feet. IPFH.org. Updated June 19, 2015. IPFH.org Link.