Do you snuggle up with extra blankets even on a hot summer night, or consider sweater weather a year-round season? If that sounds familiar, you might also recognize these symptoms: you regularly get shivering spells, icy fingers and toes, and feel like you’re freezing all the time (regardless of the temperature, and for no reason!). Experts at Harvard Medical School have indeed established that body temperatures shift during the day, but some people always feel cold — and it’s not something you should ignore.
The human body temperature is actually decreasing, believe it or not. Since the 1800s, we’ve considered 98.6°F the standard. But new journal research published in eLife in January found that body temperatures tend to be closer to 97.9°F. Research also shows that women usually feel the chill more than men, because females can sometimes have a lower metabolic rate than men, meaning they burn fewer calories at rest and generate less heat, says Peter Bidey, D.O., the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Vice Chair for the Department of Family Medicine. Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2015 found that the most comfortable room temperature for women is 77 degrees, while men prefer a cooler 71.6 degrees.
Feeling super cold occasionally or just on cold days is nothing to worry about, Bidey says, but once it starts to interfere with your daily routine or occurs with other symptoms, it’s a different story. “If you’re feeling really fatigued on top of [being cold], or if you see changes in your hair, get short of breath or dizzy, start having changes in your bowel habits, with a combo of generally feeling really cold, you should probably go see your physician,” he tells Good Housekeeping. Below, we explore some of the reasons you may feel cold more often than not.
ou may have an under-active thyroid.
The thyroid essentially works like a thermostat for your body, says Gary LeRoy, M.D., the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. It releases hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism, temperature and other functions, but it doesn’t always function as it should. When the thyroid is under active, known as hypothyroidism, it doesn’t produce enough of the hormones your body needs, and that can make you sensitive to the cold. “It’s like turning down the thermostat, and the body’s metabolism kind of slows down,” he explains.
How do you know if hypothyroidism is causing your cold spells? Dr. LeRoy suggests paying attention to other symptoms you’re experiencing. “Other than feeling cold, do you notice your skin seems to be dry?” he says. “Do you notice you’re gaining weight?” Hair loss, constipation and extreme fatigue also may occur. It might be time to get your thyroid checked if you have these ailments on top of feeling cold all the time.
You’re not getting enough iron.
Anemia is one of the most common blood conditions, affecting millions of Americans. It occurs when your body lacks enough healthy red blood cells, which send oxygen to your organs. When organs are starved for oxygen, you may feel cold, especially in your extremities, says Stefani Sassos, MS, RD, CDN, the registered dietitian for the Good Housekeeping Institute. Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia, and simply eating more iron-rich foods can help. Sassos recommends eating foods high in heme iron, which the body more easily absorbs, such as red meat, shellfish, or canned tuna. Non-heme iron foods like spinach, beans and nuts, are good, too, just pair them with vitamin C found in citrus fruits or tomatoes to help the body absorb the iron.
Suspect you’re anemic? Ask your doctor for a complete blood count panel, Sassos suggests. Women are often more at risk for anemia because of menstruation and childbirth, but people who take blood thinners, vegetarians and those over age 65 are also at higher risk, she explains. Anemia can also be caused by other health conditions like sickle cell anemia or kidney disease, Dr. LeRoy says.
You have a vitamin deficiency.
If you have low levels of vitamin B12, B9 or C, you may have vitamin-deficiency anemia, which may also make you sensitive to the cold. Vitamin deficiencies occur if you don’t eat enough foods containing these nutrients, or if the body is unable to absorb or process the vitamins. It can take several months to a year for a vitamin deficiency to develop, so Sassos recommends keeping a close eye on your diet.
Good sources of B12 include red meat, eggs, dairy and poultry, or fortified cereals and nutritional yeast, Sassos says. Vitamin B9, also known as folate, is found in fruits and leafy greens, and citrus fruits and tomatoes are common vitamin C sources. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe supplements to help boost your nutrient intake.
You’re taking these medications.
Cold hands and feet are a side effect of some medications, like beta-blockers used to treat heart problems, Bidey says. They work by slowing your heart rate to keep it from pumping too hard and reacting to adrenaline and other stress hormones. The slowed rate can make you feel cold, and also dizzy, tired and nauseous. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor about any medication side effects you’re having — the dosing may need adjusting or a different drug may need to be prescribed.
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You could have Raynaud’s disease.
Do your fingers and toes ever get so cold they turn blue and tingle? Raynaud’s disease could be to blame. This is a rare condition causing blood vessels to contract when you get cold, or feel stressed, and restrict blood flow, according to the National Institutes of Health. The lack of blood flow to certain areas of the body, usually fingers and toes, causes them to turn white and blue. When the blood returns, the areas become red and feel prickly or majorly painful. There’s no known cause for Raynaud’s, but it’s much more common among women, especially those with a family history of the condition.
Raynaud’s disease is “trigger related,” meaning the phenomenon happens quickly when you encounter the cold, Bidey says. Stress triggers symptoms for some people. Your doctor can diagnose Raynaud’s disease via an examination and blood test. Medication is often prescribed for severe cases, but usually simply managing the condition by wearing gloves and avoiding triggers is the best approach, he explains.
You might have a heart condition.
Peripheral artery disease is a condition that causes plaque to build up in the arteries. “You’re a little more prone to have a decrease in the blood flow to certain areas,” Bidey says, and this creates coldness, numbness or tingling in the hands, feet or legs. Blood clots, high cholesterol or other conditions that clog your arteries can have the same effect.
If you’re always feeling cold, but also have muscle pain or cramps in your legs and arms, commonly after physical activity, you should get it checked out. You may be prescribed a blood thinner, or your health provider may suggest you take an aspirin each day.
Sometimes, lifestyle changes, like regular exercise, quitting smoking and cutting out saturated fats that lead to high cholesterol, can lessen the condition’s hold on your health.
You could have diabetes.
Feeling cold, tired, and have to pee a lot? These might be signs of diabetes, a chronic condition that affects how your body processes glucose and turns the foods you eat into energy. “When you have diabetes, it can affect your kidneys, your circulatory system and things along those lines, which could be why you’re having feelings of cold,” Bidey says. Kidney problems can trigger anemia, which comes with cold sensitivity, and diabetes can cause nerve damage, giving you cold feet.
Early diabetes symptoms may be subtle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting your blood sugar tested regularly if you’re in a high-risk group, including being overweight or having a family history. Black and Hispanic men and women are at an even higher risk of diabetes; Black adults are 60% more likely than white adults to receive a diabetes diagnosis, and twice as likely to die from the disease, according to the Office of Minority Health. While there’s no cure for diabetes, doctors may prescribe medications or suggest lifestyle changes such as weight loss, exercise and eating healthier to reduce the impact that the disease has on your life. Asking your doctor about diagnosing diabetes is important to begin long-term care.
You could be underweight.
Body fat keeps you warm, so when you have too little, you’ll likely feel chilly. “Ultimately, if you’re walking around with decreased amounts of body fat, you’re going to be more responsive to cold,” Bidey explains. For women, a body mass index (BMI) less than 18.5 is considered underweight. Certain health conditions may cause excessive weight and body fat loss, including digestive or metabolic disorders. Stress and anxiety could also be to blame.
Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa or orthorexia where people consciously restrict their eating, can lead to dangerously low body weight and a number of other serious health problems, including cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and thyroid conditions. These conditions may be life-threatening, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Feeling cold likely ties into some of these conditions, and may be an unintentional symptom for undiagnosed individuals who are silently fighting eating disorders.
If you’re noticing that a new chill is present after you’ve recently dropped some weight, it’s a good idea to reach out to a healthcare provider. Weight loss causing sustained chills may be concerning if it’s paired with menstrual problems, depression, or the potential for developing anemia as well.
You might be having regular panic attacks.
About 11% of Americans experience a panic attack each year, often triggered by anxiety, depression, stress or family history, according to the Cleveland Clinic. “Sometimes, people that have panic attacks have this feeling of impending doom because their heart is not beating efficiently,” Dr. LeRoy says, so the body shuts down in a sense to make sure the heart, brain and other organs are getting enough oxygen. “In its attempt at self-preservation, the body is going to channel the blood to those major organs at the expense of peripheral areas of the body,” he says, “and that’s where sometimes people get a shivering type of sensation.”
Everyone experiences panic attacks differently. Dr. LeRoy says chills and shivering are less common than other symptoms like chest pain, sweating, difficulty breathing and a racing heart. Seek treatment if your panic attacks are happening more frequently or becoming more severe.
You’re just getting older.
Ever visited an older relative and their home felt like a sauna? Dr. LeRoy said that’s likely because we get colder as we age. “When we get older, things slow down, and some of the core body temperature tends to drop slowly,” he said. Aging also increases the risk of developing conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and other conditions that can restrict blood flow and make you feel colder. That’s why doctors emphasize the value of a healthy diet and exercise for their younger patients, Dr. LeRoy explains.
Feeling cold from time to time is one thing. If you’re cold all the time and also extremely tired, dizzy or have other unusual symptoms, however, it’s time to get it checked out. Catching a chronic health condition early can help you continue to age as gracefully as possible.