February is turning out to be a bitterly cold month, with temperatures set to drop as low as 10c in some parts of the world. But if you can’t seem to get warm despite piling on the layers and if no one else around you feels as cold it may not just be the weather that’s to blame.
Here, we look at some of the health conditions linked to feeling cold:
1. You're not getting enough sleep:
It could be simply that you need more sleep. It’s quite common to feel cold when we’re over-tired, says Professor Russell Foster, a neuroscientist and director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford. Though the exact reason isn’t clear, it’s known that being sleep-deprived raises levels of stress hormones such as cortisol.
When this happens, the body responds as if it’s under attack, and blood is diverted to where it is most needed - the major organs,’ says Professor Foster. This means that it’s taken away from where it’s less important, such as in the extremities and the surface of the skin. The lack of blood flow makes the skin cooler, which, in turn, activates cold receptors in the skin, making us feel cold.
Disruption to your body clock could also be to blame. Our body temperature naturally drops in preparation for sleep, so if we stay awake for longer than we should, then we are likely to feel cold all over, he adds.
2. Your temperature gauge is faulty:
A feeling of cold all over the body could be a sign of an underactive thyroid. This condition, affecting around one in 50 women and one in 1,000 men, is where the thyroid gland at the front of the neck does not produce enough thyroxine, a hormone needed to regulate many of the body’s functions, such as digestion, metabolism and body temperature.
A reduced metabolism means that the body is less able to generate heat, says Dr Mark Vanderpump, a consultant endocrinologist at The Physicians Clinic in London. The condition can also disrupt the function of the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body temperature, which can also contribute to a feeling of cold. Other symptoms include tiredness, muscle cramps, dry and scaly skin and brittle hair and nails. Treatment usually involves daily tablets to replace the thyroxine hormone.
3. Too much sugar in your blood:
Cold hands and feet especially if they feel tingly or numb may be caused by diabetes, which is characterized by blood sugar levels that are too high. An estimated 600,000 Britons are so-called silent diabetics, unaware they have the condition because key symptoms such as tiredness or needing the loo frequently can be put down to something else.
This is particularly a problem with type 2 diabetes, the form associated with obesity, where the onset of symptoms can be slower and less obvious than with type 1. Undiagnosed and untreated diabetes can lead to peripheral neuropathy, where small blood vessels that supply the nerves in the hands or feet are damaged by high blood sugar levels, says Dr Dushyant Sharma, a consultant diabetologist at the Royal Liverpool Hospital.
The lack of blood can make the hands and feet feel cold and numb. It usually starts in the feet, because this is the most distant part of the body from the heart, so is likely to be damaged first by lack of circulating blood.
4. It could be a sign of infection:
The rise in body temperature that comes with a fever can, ironically, cause the chills. Normal body temperature is about 37c, but it can rise as the body fights off an infection such as flu.
We then feel cold and shivery, because the rise in core body temperature creates a contrast with the temperature around us, says Dr Robert Lambkin-Williams, a virologist at Queen Mary University of London. With sepsis, a life-threatening condition where the body’s immune system overreacts to an infection the patient’s skin can also feel abnormally cold to the touch.
This is because blood has been redirected to vital organs such as the heart. Other symptoms include skin that is blue, mottled or very pale and bluish lips and tongue.
5. Blame it on your itchy skin:
Skin conditions such as severe eczema, which can leave the skin very red and inflamed, are typically associated with itchiness but they can also leave you feeling cold on the affected areas. The skin is part of the body’s thermoregulatory mechanism its ability to maintain a core temperature,’ says Andrew Wright, a professor of dermatology at the University of Bradford.
Inflammation, exacerbated by scratching, causes the blood vessels to dilate which is what makes the skin appear red. This increases blood flow to the surface of the skin, from where heat is then lost, he adds.
This is quite different from Raynaud’s disease, which causes the blood vessels in the fingers and toes to narrow in response to cold temperatures, says Eddie Chaloner, a vascular surgeon in Harley Street and Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust. With Raynaud’s, the fingers and toes feel ice-cold to the touch because blood supply has been blocked to the area. This causes them to change colour to white.’ As blood flow returns when they warm up, they turn blue and then red.
6. Too little iron in your diet:
Feeling cold all over could be a sign of iron deficiency anemia, which occurs because of a lack of red blood cells, which are needed to carry oxygen around the body. Oxygen-rich blood is diverted to vital organs such as the heart and brain as a result, says Dr Shankara Paneesha, a consultant haematologist at the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust in Birmingham.
This leads to blood vessels in the surface of the skin shutting down. This symptom may get worse after eating because blood supply to major organs increases during the digestive process. Other telltale signs include tiredness, lack of energy, heart palpitations and looking pale.
7. Is it down to your health pills:
One side-effect of beta-blockers which are usually prescribed for high blood pressure, angina and arrhythmia is feeling cold in the fingers and toes. Beta-blockers work by making the heart beat more slowly and with less force, says Dr Glyn Thomas, a consultant cardiologist at the Bristol Heart Institute.
This can cause the blood vessels to constrict in your extremities, blocking the blood flow there and so making you feel cold. It can happen after just one dose. If you experience this side-effect, your doctor may be able to prescribe a different type of drug, he adds.
8. Furred-up arteries in your leg:
Feeling the cold in one leg may be a warning sign of atherosclerosis, where fatty substances called plaque build up inside the arteries. If this occurs in the major arteries in the leg, it can make that leg or foot feel cold because of reduced blood flow to the area, says Dr Thomas.
However, the site of the damaged artery isn’t necessarily where you feel the cold. If you have a blockage in the knee, for example, then this will affect blood flowing downwards, which would cause cold and pain in the lower leg on the affected side.
Any arteries in the body could potentially become furred-up, but the coldness is only likely to affect legs because there are very large arteries in them. Left untreated, atherosclerosis can increase the risk of blood clots, potentially leading to a stroke or heart attack.
9. Women need the heating cranked up:
If you feel the cold more than your other half, it might be down to your gender. The female hormone estrogen makes the peripheral blood vessels in the fingers and toes more sensitive to the cold, even when there is only a slight drop in temperature, says Michael Tipton, a professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth.
Temperature in our extremities can also affect our perception of the cold. So, even if a room feels heated for a man, if a woman has colder hands and feet then this dominates her perception of how warm the environment actually is.
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