What to do if the weather turns your fingers white and numb

What to do if the weather turns your fingers white and numb

With bitter cold taking over the Chicago area this past week, it’s likely that anyone who steps outside will feel the freeze throughout their body. But for some people, the cold weather has a more serious effect. They may experience a sudden loss of color and feeling in their fingers or toes, even when wearing thick gloves or socks.

The frustrating condition has a name – Raynaud’s syndrome – and it affects about five percent of the American population, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The body’s normal response when fingers and toes are exposed to cold temperatures is for the small blood vessels to constrict in an attempt to keep the core body temperature warm,” says Dr. Carmelita Colbert, a rheumatologist with Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. “Raynaud’s syndrome is an exaggeration of that typical response. When exposed to cold temperatures or excessive stress, Raynaud’s causes the blood vessels to narrow tighter than normal and restricts blood circulation, which leads the extremities to lose color and feel numb.”

While this can be frightening to experience, Dr. Colbert says people should not be overly concerned as long as the discoloration and numbness only occurs for a short time before the skin regains color and feeling.

“If you are outside this winter and experience white and numb fingers or toes, it’s imperative that you immediately rewarm your hands. This can be done by safely placing your hands over a heater or using hand warmers,” explains Dr. Colbert. “Whether you are experiencing a Raynaud’s attack or want to prevent one from happening, always keep your core warm by adding extra layers if you will be outside in cold temperatures.”

People with Raynaud’s should also avoid common triggers, including smoking, caffeine, narcotics and over-the-counter cold medications.

If someone experiences Raynaud’s signs or symptoms with only minimal exposure to the cold, or it takes a substantial amount of time to warm back up, they should seek immediate medical attention.

While Raynaud’s is usually not serious, there are two forms of the syndrome, with one of those connected to more health complications.

Secondary Raynaud’s typically occurs in people with an underlying disease, such as lupus, scleroderma or mixed connective tissue disease, and requires additional medical attention. Primary Raynaud’s, the more common of the two, also requires treatment but is not associated with a secondary disorder.

Dr. Colbert says you can manage Raynaud’s during this subzero weather by making simple lifestyle changes and dressing appropriately if you know you will be outside.

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About the Author

Julie Nakis
Julie Nakis

Julie Nakis, health enews contributor, is manager of public affairs at Advocate Children's Hospital. She earned her BA in communications from the University of Iowa – Go Hawkeyes! In her free time, she enjoys spending time with friends and family, exploring the city and cheering on the Chicago Cubs and Blackhawks.