Women, Cold Hands and Feet

Women: Biology of Cold Hands and Feet

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Vintage postcard of a girl in winter. (Photo: Flicker sharing Cheryl Hicks)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Our Digits Are So Cold!

As the weather cools and the thermostats go up, a major distinction starts to arise between those who feel cold, and those who tend to run warm, and usually (though there are always exceptions) there's a major difference between the sexes. Guys, how many times have you been nice and warm, only to have your wife, girlfriend, or partner snuggle up and place her icy digits on you? Ladies, how nice is it to find that nice warm guy and just rest your icy numb fingers on him to warm up? Do you constantly deal with thermostat battles for how hot or cold it should be in the house? There is a clear reason why women get cold hands and feet, that's right, biology.

Let's face it, men and women are built differently, and there are some key differences in our physiology (From the US Army Institute of Environmental Medicine):

  • Women usually average about 20% less body mass, and about 18% less surface area (skin) than men.
  • Surprisingly, women have better body insulation, except for the hands and feet, but it comes at a greater cost, this includes:
    • Greater body fat burden than men (we naturally have more padding to help us "carry the young."). This fat is also more evenly distributed near the "body core" than a man's, so for women there is less insulation around the extremities.
    • Women have less muscle mass than men, which means less muscle to generate heat during exercise or shivering.
    • Less blood volume than men, who also have larger hearts and circulatory systems.
  • Our hands and feet vasoconstrict more than men. This means that the blood vessels in our extremities constrict to shunt blood to our core to protect vital reproductive organs and the "fetal" region. Vasoconstriction takes blood (and heat) away from our extremities.
  • Lower hand, foot, and skin temperatures than men (again this goes back to vasoconstriction, less blood, etc.).
  • In general, the skin of women is thinner than in men (yes, this lends itself to many jokes). This is especially true post-menopause, when women lose about 1-2% skin collagen and thickness a year.  This thinning of the skin can cause itchiness, which leads to scratching, which easily leads to infection.  Not something you want to deal with, so keep your skin as moistened and pampered as you can.
  • Because women have less blood flow to the extremities they tend to have drier skin than men, especially in very cold weather.
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Wearing socks made from wool or cotton can keep your feet warm, but be sure to change them if they get damp. (Photo: Wiki commons).

So what can do you do about cold hands and feet if you are a woman, or a guy dealing with your partners really cold digits?

  1. Eat a balanced diet, which contains healthy amounts of proteins and iron, vitamins and minerals. This can help you maintain a healthy circulatory system and good oxygen flow in your blood.
  2. Drink plenty of water. If you are dehydrated then your blood vessels can't carry heat, nutrition, and warmth to your body and extremities.
  3. Exercise regularly. A healthy heart will help with blood flow and getting warmed blood to your cold hands and feet and back.
  4. Use hand lotion and moisturizer for your skin and even lip balm for your lips. Keep your skin and body moisturized regularly. This will help keep the skin from drying out and cracking, especially those nasty little cracks that develop around your nails and on your fingers in winter.
  5. Keep skin covered as much as possible, and try to avoid exposure to extreme cold. This includes wearing gloves, socks, scarves, and hats. Your head loses a lot of heat too!
  6. Wear layers of clothing that can insulate and trap body heat. Try to avoid synthetics around your feet and hands, which can cause sweating and moisture buildup.
  7. Change your socks regularly, especially if your feet tend to sweat or develop moisture. This will help keep them dry and warm. If you're hiking you can often buy wicking layers of socks, or sock liners to help wick moisture away from your feet too.
  8. Wear loose, comfortable shoes, not tight, constricting shoes. If your shoes are too tight you're only exacerbating the vasoconstriction in your feet and making them colder.
  9. Buy sleeping bags made for women, which have more padding in the head (often with a hood) and foot regions. Thermarest is one example, but there are many.
  10. Bring your hand and foot temperatures up slowly, don't just slam your hands into hot water to get warm. Use warm water or warm foot baths to gradually warm yourself. If you try "sudden exposure" to extreme heat you can end up giving yourself chilblains (yes this is a real thing). Chilblains are when you get painful vasodilation (your blood vessels dilate quickly due to sudden exposure to heat). This can cause skin itching or reddening, swelling of the skin, or even blistering. They usually go away quickly, but can last up to three weeks!
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In the cold season, keep exposure to skin limited (Photo: Wiki commons).

There's a good reason for women to have cold hands and feet, mostly dealing with biology. A little patience, preparation, and understanding are all that are required to stay warm and comfortable.  (but it makes a wonderful excuse to find someone warm and cuddle up, too!)

 

 

 
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About Infinite Spider

I am currently the Education Program Coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. I have also been a curriculum developer for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and a contract curriculum writer for the Discovery Channel. In my spare time I am a blogger here at "The Infinite Spider" (Infinitespider.com), a science and nature blog for naturalists and outdoor educators. I love rowing crew, birding, hiking, kayaking, and being outdoors. My undergraduate degrees are in Environmental Science and Philosophy, and my graduate degree is in Biology. Currently I live in Annapolis, MD.