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Dear Dr. Sugar,
Have you heard of Raynaud’s phenomenon? I have been dealing with this "phenomenon" turning my toes and fingers white and cold when skiing. Let me just say the sensation is not phenomenal. I am wondering if there is anything I can do to help prevent it from happening and if I am causing any permanent damage to my skin? Thanks,
— Cold Toes, Warm Heart
To hear what DrSugar has to say about this condition,
Although the name sounds somewhat exotic, Raynaud’s phenomenon is a very common disorder that results in blood vessel spasms causing white and painful fingers and toes when exposed to the cold. If your fingers and toes are particularly sensitive, Raynaud’s can be very disabling in cold environments. The cause of Raynaud’s is unknown, but sometimes it is associated with other diseases such as lupus or thyroid disorders. If Raynaud’s is not treated promptly, it can result in damage to skin due to lack of blood supply; however, this is fairly rare. This condition commonly affects women 20 to 50 years of age, and often runs in families. Smoking and stress are known to worsen the symptoms of Raynaud’s. So if you smoke, this is yet one more reason to quit.
The easiest and most effective way to prevent Raynaud’s is to keep your hands and feet extra warm. Unfortunately, this simple measure can be quite challenging during prolonged exposure to cold like skiing. One way to prevent the blood vessel spasms in the fingers while out in the cold for prolonged periods of time is to wear mittens instead of gloves. Mittens tend to be warmer because your fingers get heat from each other. I would keep a few hand warmers around so you can put them in the mittens to warm your fingers even more. Keeping toes warm can be a little trickier, but extra thick socks and foot warmers can help. If the ski lodge has boot warmers, take the time to heat the interior of your boots before heading to the ski lift. If none of these tricks help, there are medications that can help prevent skin damage or help heal existing skin ulcers. These prescription medications include calcium channel blockers which prevent vessel spasms and nitroglycerin creams that relax blood vessels. It's also important to remember that if you have other symptoms such as joint pains, rashes, or fatigue, you may have another serious disease that requires evaluation by a doctor.
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