When it’s cold outside, the tone of your skin changes as it gets to your fingers. Your digits shift from their normal hue to white or blue, and they might turn red after that. But this might not occur because of the fact that temperatures have dropped. Instead, there could be a more serious explanation for the changing color of your skin.
It doesn’t take much to trigger such skin changes in a person who has this condition. Walking outside and into a frigid car on a wintry morning can start the symptoms. Or maybe it could be a breeze of cold air blown by an indoor air-conditioning unit. Indeed, even reaching into a chilled refrigerator could make a person’s fingers change colors.
Worse yet, it’s not just the fingers which are affected by the cold. This particular condition can stall blood flow through the arteries – among a slew of other bodily issues. But detection starts with the fingers and toes; when they’re cold and start to change colors, they might be revealing a deeper medical problem.
It’s not uncommon for fingers and toes to feel cold. Perhaps you roll out of bed without socks on and your toes touch a cool floor. Or, you wrap your hands around a chilled glass of beer after a long day. Either way, your extremities feel the change in temperature – and, for some, that may trigger changes in their skin.
Most people who have this particular condition watch as their cold skin shifts from its normal hue to white. After that, it becomes deoxygenated and turns blue. Then as oxygen returns to the skin, it takes on a reddish hue. And even if this full rainbow of colors doesn’t appear, a sensitivity to cold always lingers.
Sometimes, these cold-triggered changes start in one digit and spread symmetrically, although they skip the thumb in many people. The sensitivity and color changes can affect other parts of the body, too. In some, the earlobes, nose and even nipples experience the same effects in low temperatures.
A visible sensitivity to cold isn’t the only symptom of this particular condition. As warmth returns to the digits – a process that can take 15 minutes or more – it can bring with it a prickly, throbbing or numb sensation. And it’s not just cold that can cause these sensations to come and go. The symptoms can in fact also be brought on by stress, too.
The condition also comes in varying levels. Its secondary iteration comes with more serious symptoms – such as ulcers and sores. And a milder case of the disease can transition into this more severe stage, so if color-changing skin gives way to the above, people should see a doctor immediately.
A woman named Amy talked to the British charity SRUK about her experience with the condition. Apparently, her symptoms started appearing during her teen years. She explained, “I constantly felt cold and numbness in my hands and feet.”
Amy continued, “The only way that I would feel better was to sit in the bath, but even then my feet would turn black, white and purple. I did not know what it was and it started to worry me.” However, the deep hues she saw didn’t push her to seek medical attention – it was the excruciating pain she felt in her hands and feet.
At first, Amy’s doctor couldn’t see anything wrong with her and that diagnosis made her feel “so upset that they couldn’t see what I was seeing.” Blood tests went out and, in the meantime, the teen kept a journal of all of her symptoms. She recalled writing things like, “My knuckles are purple,” and, “My hands and feet are throbbing.”
But doctors eventually came back with the correct diagnosis for Amy, and this allowed for her to start a treatment regimen. After that, life changed for the teenager. She went onto study at a university and even joined a soccer team – with whom she’d play outdoors in all types of weather.
For Claire, a woman who spoke to SRUK while in her 40s, the condition started to show itself when she was a child. She’d attend dance rehearsals in a chilly space, and she remembered her fingers feeling numb and turning white. Then, she could shake it off – but in her 20s, Claire realized that she could no longer ignore her symptoms.
At that time, Claire explained, “I was living in Scotland with my now-husband. We used to go out walking a lot and I remember my fingers being extremely painful, to the point of making me feel nauseous and dizzy.” As time went on – and with remedies available to her – Claire’s flare-ups occurred solely in her fingers.
As Claire put it, “My fingers have the classic symptoms and will go white and numb. It’s usually the same two that go first and if it’s a bad flare, they’ll all go. When it’s particularly bad, it’s extremely painful and they’ll go blue and then red and there’s quite a lot of pain when the circulation does return.”
Claire added that could “take up to an hour” for the circulation to return to her hands. However, the wife and mother did have at least one person in her family who could understand what she was going through. Her oldest son, Lewis, also suffered from the same condition – which led the family to believe it was hereditary.
Much like his mother, Lewis began to experience his symptoms early on. In his young life, the biggest effect was on his athletic pursuits. He said, “I used to play a lot of tennis but had to stop playing during colder months as I struggled to hold the racket.” He could still play soccer though, so long as he wore gloves and lots of layers.
What Lewis, Claire, Amy and approximately 20 percent of the world’s adult population have in common is the diagnosis they share. Their hands tighten, throb and change colors because they suffer from a condition called Raynaud’s disease by some or Raynaud’s phenomenon by others. Either way, it causes the same painful symptoms.
At the time of writing, medical experts have yet to understand why people suffer from Raynaud’s. However, they hypothesize that blood vessels – specifically, those located in the feet and hands – overreact to the cold, according to the Mayo Clinic. They might also go on the fritz when stress kicks in, too.
More specifically, the arteries that funnel into your fingers spasm once they experience cold temperatures or bodily stress. This constricts the blood vessels and cuts down the blood supply to the area – thus explaining the changing colors of the skin. As time goes on, the digit-based arteries can thicken up, and this makes it even harder for blood to get through.
The true cause of Raynaud’s isn’t the only mystery surrounding this condition. According to Harvard Health Publishing, medical professionals have known about and researched the phenomenon since the late 1800s. And yet, “its underlying mechanisms are still poorly understood, and we don’t know why it disproportionately affects women.”
The U.K.’s National Health Service says that roughly one in five in the world’s adult population has Raynaud’s. For most people, the primary version of the condition appears when they reach their 20s or 30s. However, the more serious iteration called secondary Raynaud’s can pop up at any stage in one’s life.
Primary Raynaud’s appears on its own and is much more common than secondary. Those with the latter suffer from it in tandem with at least one of a handful of other conditions. As such, it is usually a more serious diagnosis than the primary version and indicates a broader underlying issue, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For instance, a person with connective tissue disease might have Raynaud’s because of it. Scleroderma, for one, toughens and scars the skin, and this boosts one’s chances of having Raynaud’s. Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis fall under this umbrella, as does Sjögren’s syndrome – which affects the body’s production of fluids including saliva and tears.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can also trigger Raynaud’s, the Mayo Clinic claims. It makes sense if you think about it – those with carpal tunnel issues have put too much pressure on the nerves in their hand. Not only does this cause pain and numbness, but it can make the entire appendage more sensitive to dropping temperatures.
Repetitive movements over a lifetime can also give way to Raynaud’s – as can regular vibrations that shake the body. For instance, someone who plays piano for hours each day might develop the condition. Or, a construction worker who handles a jackhammer day in and day out can damage their hands – thus encouraging Raynaud’s to develop.
Raynaud’s may also be caused by unhealthy habits such as smoking. When a person puffs on cigarettes, their blood vessels constrict in response. Constricted arteries are what causes the phenomenon to occur in the first place, so it makes sense that smoking and Raynaud’s go hand-in-hand.
Not only can the aforementioned conditions trigger Raynaud’s, but, sometimes, the reverse is true. Primary Raynaud’s can digress into one of the ailments associated with the disease – such as lupus. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, either – according to the NHS, this happens in one out of every ten cases where a doctor makes a primary stage diagnosis.
Other risk factors for developing primary Raynaud’s include the climate in which a person lives. For example, those who live in colder places tend to develop the disease more often. Family history can increase the chances of someone having the condition – so children, siblings or parents with Raynaud’s could foreshadow another person’s diagnosis down the line.
The good news is that those with Raynaud’s have multiple defenses available to them. For starters, they can wear enough layers to stay warm when temperatures dip. The Mayo Clinic advises, “When it’s cold, don a hat, scarf, socks and boots, and two layers of mittens or gloves before you go outside.”
Chemical hand warmers and cuff-sleeved jackets can further keep appendages warm in winter temperatures. These tips can be tailored to different Raynaud’s-affected extremities, too. So, if a person has sensitive earlobes, they can slip on a thick pair of earmuffs before they head outdoors.
With the right attire, Raynaud’s sufferers can go onto the next step of staying warm in the cold. They should also always warm up their cars before driving in such conditions. Letting heat blow through the vehicle for a few minutes can make it a smoother transition from indoors to on the road.
Some houses get cold, too – even an indoor environment can trigger a Raynaud’s flare-up. So, those with the condition should always wear socks and layers to stay cozy. If they need something ice-cold from the fridge or freezer, they should put on a pair of gloves before grabbing for it.
The Mayo Clinic recommended that those with Raynaud’s should try drinking out of insulated glasses to keep chilled drinks far from their hands. And, finally, they might want to turn up the thermostat – especially when it’s air-conditioning season. After all, even a regulated indoor environment can cause an attack if it’s too cold.
Those with Raynaud’s can tamp down on the stress they feel to reduce symptoms of the disease. Exercises such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga classes can do the trick. Others find it helpful to stop sipping on caffeinated beverages – including coffee and soda. A healthy diet can help keep things in balance, too.
Then, there’s the potential of assuaging Raynaud’s by way of regular exercise. By partaking in 150 minutes of intense exercise each week, a person can boost their circulation and ward off stress – both of which can mute the symptoms of the condition.
Finally, those with both primary and secondary Raynaud’s can benefit from quitting smoking. With each puff, a person’s circulation slows down. So putting down the cigarettes once and for all can get blood flowing again – right back into the hands and feet where it’s needed. Then, with blood pumping more powerfully, symptoms will be even more muted.
Furthermore, if natural remedies aren’t enough to soothe a person’s Raynaud’s symptoms, doctors can prescribe medications to help. According to SRUK, calcium channel blockers can calm the blood vessels and help them to re-open. And, with the arteries relaxed, patients suffer far fewer attacks with much less intensity.
In spite of all of the aforementioned information, however, Raynaud’s disease remains something of a mystery to medical professionals. They don’t have an explanation for its development, nor is there a single, one-size-fits-all cure. For now, those with the condition have natural remedies, as well as some pharmaceuticals that can help them through the pain.
Fortunately, though, researchers hope to change all of that. The charity SRUK, for one, funnels money into both scientific and medical research. They hope that the experts’ findings can help make life better for those with Raynaud’s. If you have the condition, you can also make a difference by participating in a clinical trial helps researchers to test and find a potential cure.