It’s normal to feel unpleasantly cold when you go outside in the depths of winter or if your office has an aggressive AC. But if you’re feeling cold all the time for seemingly no reason, you might wonder if it’s a sign that something could be up with your body. Here, doctors explain the most likely reasons you might feel like a giant walking icicle.
1. Your body happens to run cold.
“There are some people who just feel cold all the time,” Neha Vyas, M.D., a family physician at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. This quality, which doctors often call cold intolerance, is usually not a sign of something serious by itself, Deborah Besson, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine in women’s health primary care at UC San Francisco and internist at UCSF Medical Center, tells SELF.
It’s true that certain health conditions can cause cold intolerance, and we’ll delve into the usual suspects below. However, in those cases, there is typically a host of other more noticeable symptoms that will catch your attention first, Dr. Besson explains.
That being said, it’s still worth getting checked out if you’re cold all the time but don’t feel like anything else is amiss, Dr. Besson says. Your doctor will likely look at your medical records and ask about how often you’re cold, along with teasing out any other symptoms you may not have noticed, Dr. Vyas says. That can help determine what kind of testing might be necessary to land on a diagnosis, if any.
2. You have hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid does not produce sufficient levels of the hormones that properly regulate your metabolism, which in turn slows down, according to the Mayo Clinic. This can happen for various reasons, the most common being Hashimoto’s disease, which prompts your immune system to attack your thyroid, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
Since a slow thyroid affects a bunch of metabolic functions, hypothyroidism can cause a wide range of symptoms including fatigue, unintended weight gain, constipation, dry skin, thinning hair, a depressed mood, heavy or irregular periods, and an increased sensitivity to cold, the NIDDK says. Dr. Bessons points to fatigue as the usual tip-off, so if your energy levels are dragging and no amount of fuzzy sweaters can keep you warm, you should definitely mention that to your doctor.
Treatment for hypothyroidism involves taking a daily dose of a synthetic replacement for thyroid hormone called levothyroxine, the NIDDK explains. You’ll also need ongoing blood tests to ensure your hormone levels are up to par once you start treatment, so it may take some time to find the right dose for you.
3. You have anemia.
Anemia is a blood disorder that happens when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body, according to the American Society of Hematology (ASH). This can be the result of your body making too few red blood cells, destroying too many red blood cells, or losing too much blood for some reason, the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains. This leads to less circulation to your limbs, causing you to feel colder, Dr. Vyas says, particularly in your hands and feet. Other common anemia symptoms include weakness, fatigue, an irregular heartbeat, paler skin, chest pain, and headaches.
There are many types of anemia, but the most common one stems from an iron deficiency, according to the Mayo Clinic. When you don’t have enough iron in your blood, you can’t make sufficient hemoglobin, a protein that allows your red blood cells to transport oxygen and carbon dioxide. Blood loss due to heavy periods can cause this kind of anemia, as can pregnancy, which increases your blood volume. (This is why iron is a key component of prenatal vitamins.) Other forms of anemia are connected with deficiencies in folate and vitamin B-12, which are necessary for producing red blood cells, and with genetics, such as the chronic illness sickle cell anemia, the Mayo Clinic says.
The cause of anemia determines the treatment, the goal of which is to increase your levels of healthy red blood cells by addressing the underlying condition or deficiency. This can involve taking iron supplements, making dietary changes to get more folate or vitamin B-12, or more intensive methods such as blood transfusions if you have a chronic condition, the Mayo Clinic says.
4. You have Raynaud’s disease.
Raynaud’s disease is a condition that causes your extremities to become cold, discolored (like red or blue), numb, and even painful when you’re in cold temperatures or stressed out. “It happens because your blood vessels are constricting,” Dr. Besson explains.
Raynaud’s, which typically affects the fingers and toes most but can also occur in the nose, lips, ears, and nipples, does not cause a general chill all the time. “Normally, people with Raynaud’s only get the symptoms if they go outside and it’s cold,” Dr. Besson says. “It’s actually a normal response for your blood vessels to [constrict] in the cold, but this is an exaggerated response.”
Stress can also trigger episodes because it might set off your sympathetic nervous system’s evolved physiological response to a perceived threat, Dr. Besson says. As part of this fight-or-flight response, your body might divert blood flow from areas like the hands and feet to the heart and brain. This allows you more energy and clarity to get away from a threat, but it can also leave your extremities feeling frigid.
Most commonly, Raynaud’s isn’t caused by any underlying issue, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is known as primary Raynaud’s. Sometimes, though, Raynaud’s can be the result of a medicine, such as migraine drugs known as ergots, or a number of underlying conditions that target your blood vessels, including carpal tunnel syndrome, atherosclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. This is what’s known as secondary Raynaud’s.
When it comes to primary Raynaud’s, treatment often revolves around lifestyle changes such as wearing insulating clothes and using hand and foot warmers, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). If yours is connected with stress, learning to manage that unpleasant emotion better may help. Secondary Raynaud’s requires treating the underlying cause, so be sure to see your doctor for help with that.
If you have severe Raynaud’s, your doctor may be able to prescribe medicine that amps up blood flow or recommend surgery to make the affected blood vessels less likely to constrict so much, the NHLBI says.
5. You have anxiety or panic attacks.
Anxiety is more often associated with feeling sweaty than feeling cold, but sometimes it can cause a chilly feeling as well. “When people are very anxious, their hands can feel cold and clammy,” Dr. Besson says. And if you have panic attacks, you might experience full-body chills, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). These sensations are all due to that stress-induced fight-or-flight response that skews your body’s normal functioning so you can escape or combat a threat.
As with some of the other conditions on this list, a cold sensation is only one of the symptoms you’d be inclined to experience with anxiety or panic attacks. More prominent ones include an overwhelming sense of worry or fear, a rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. Read more about physical symptoms of anxiety, plus when they might indicate a panic attack, and when to see a mental health professional for your anxiety. They can help you nail down treatment, which may include anti-anxiety drugs and therapy, according to the NIMH.
6. You’re not getting enough sleep.
Sleep is essential for regulating your body temperature, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If you don’t get enough, you might start to feel like your body’s constantly on ice.
A lack of sleep can mess with your circadian rhythm, Dr. Besson says. This is a set of physiological processes that follow a 24-hour cycle, including your metabolism, hormone levels, and body temperature, according to the National Institute of General Medical Science.
As part of your circadian rhythm, your body temperature drops as you sleep, Dr. Besson explains. If your circadian rhythm is out of whack enough that your body thinks you should be asleep when you’re actually awake, you might feel colder than usual as a result of your internal thermostat being set to the wrong timing.
7. You've lost a significant amount of weight recently.
“Your body uses fat to conserve heat,” Dr. Besson explains, so it makes sense that if you have a lower body weight, you may be more disposed to feeling chilly. It’s also not unusual to become more sensitive to the cold after your body weight decreases, Dr. Vyas says. Also, if your weight loss is connected with eating too few calories, that can cause your metabolism to slow down, Dr. Besson explains, and your temperature regulation may not be as efficient as usual. This is why cold intolerance can be one of many symptoms of an eating disorder that can cause weight loss, like anorexia or bulimia, Dr. Vyas explains.
Given how complex these disorders are, they can cause a wealth of symptoms that may or may not include weight loss. It’s entirely possible that someone may have anorexia or bulimia and not feel chilly all the time. No matter how hot or cold you feel, if you’re dealing with symptoms like severely restricting your food (or an urge to do so), vomiting after you eat, or excessive exercising, you should see a doctor or mental health professional. Even though eating disorders can affect you physically, they start in the mind—and getting help starts there, too.