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Cold Feet: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Dr. Steven Miller

Reviewed by
Dr. Steven Miller

People of all ages suffer from cold feet from time to time. Sometimes the cause is simply exposure to cold temperatures, but cold feet can also be a symptom of a disease.

When discussing cold feet, it’s important to understand that humans are naturally adapted to warm climates.

When we’re exposed to cold temperatures, our body does everything it can to stay warm. The body diverts blood circulation first from the ears and nose, and then from the arms and legs, in order to maintain its core temperature.

For people who suffer from poor circulation, this can result in cold, painful feet that may sometimes require medical attention.

Many of the symptoms that accompany cold feet include:

  • Cramps in the lower legs
  • Burning sensation
  • Tenderness in the feet
  • Numbness of the feet
  • Tingling sensation
  • Red or blue discoloration

These symptoms often worsen during the night, while the body is resting and still. Your feet can also be affected by conditions such as frostbite, chilblains, and immersion foot (cold and wet exposure). These typically develop when you are exposed to cold temperatures for a long time.

Frostbite

Frostbite is a very serious condition. When the skin is exposed to extremely low temperatures it becomes damaged. Frostbite develops when the fluid inside skin and tissue cells freezes and crystallizes.

This blocks the blood flowing to the area, causing tissue damage. Frostbite can occur in the feet, toes, nose, ears, hands, and fingers. During its early stages, the skin will turn red and it will sting, burn, or feel cold.

As time passes, the skin may discolor to a yellowish gray or white, and it may turn waxy. It may also throb, swell, or become numb. It’s important to stop frostbite from developing as quickly as possible.

If only the skin and tissues are affected, the damage may be reversible. If the frostbite has damaged the blood vessels and stopped the flow of blood, treatment may require amputation of the affected area.

Why Are My Feet Cold?

There are various reasons why people experience cold feet. Some causes are avoidable, while others are not. Known causes include:

  • Exposure to cold temperatures
  • Poor circulation
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Arthritis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Peripheral vascular disease (PVD)
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Disorders of the nervous system
  • Tarsal tunnel syndrome
  • Autoimmune disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Vasculitis
  • Heart disease
  • Frostbite
  • Raynaud’s syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • Nerve damage
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Medications that cause constriction of blood vessels

Here are some of the medications that can cause cold feet:

  • Beta blockers (for high blood pressure) including:
    • Bisoprolol
    • Metoprolol
    • Atenolol
    • Propranolol
    • Toprol-XL
    • Tenormin
  • Ergotamine (for migraine headaches)
  • Parlodel (used for various things ranging from infertility to high levels of prolactin in the body)
  • Cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine

Your emotional state can also cause your feet to become cold. Stress, tension, and negative emotions cause the small blood vessels in our extremities to narrow, allowing less blood to pass through.

This condition is called Raynaud’s syndrome, and like many of the other conditions listed above, it causes poor circulation throughout the extremities, leading to cold feet.

Cold Feet Complications That May Arise

If your feet are cold at all times or for most of each day, you should seek medical attention. Cold feet that never warm up are at risk for further complications, such as dry or cracked skin and loss of sensation. A lack of sleep can also complicate the situation.

On rare occasions, gangrene sets in. Gangrene causes the tissues to die and blisters to form under the skin.

In some cases it can lead to liver damage, kidney failure, shock, and coma. Treatment of gangrene requires surgery, which often means amputation of the affected limb or digit.

Recovery from cold feet due to frostbite or immersion injury may take a while. In some cases the effects can last for weeks, months, or years, depending on the severity of the problem.

How Can My Cold Feet Be Treated?

Treatment for cold feet will probably begin with the underlying cause. Wool socks or other warm clothing that can trap heat is very important to keeping your feet and other extremities warm. Wool socks may be recommended for wear at night, especially during cold months.

Patients are also advised to keep their feet as dry as possible. In most cases, lifestyle changes can improve the symptoms.

If frostbite develops, the limb should be warmed as quickly as possible with warm (but not hot) water. Occasionally, if the problem is severe, surgery may be necessary.

How Can I Prevent My Feet From Getting Cold?

If you get cold easily, you may want to take extra steps to prevent your feet from becoming cold. Eating right is a great start. Your body needs certain minerals and vitamins to function. Without these, things like blood circulation can suffer.

Caffeinated beverages are known to compress the blood vessels. Exercise can help you to improve blood circulation, strengthen muscles, reduce stress, and warm your cold feet. Try wearing socks made of natural fibers such as wool.

If necessary, wear socks while you sleep. Shoes made of leather have insulating properties that can keep your feet warmer.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Here are some questions to ask your doctor if you are experiencing cold feet:

  • I take beta blockers for high blood pressure, is there anything we can do to prevent my cold feet?
  • What exercises can help me keep my feet warmer?
  • What nutrients can improve my blood circulation?

Medical References:

  1. H. Winter Griffith, MD "Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness & Surgery" (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2006) 55
  2. ePodiatry.com, Cold Feet, http://www.epodiatry.com/cold-feet.htm
  3. Foot Health Facts, Cold Feet, http://www.footphysicians.com/what-is/cold_feet.htm

This page was last updated on October 1st, 2015



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