Picture yourself outside on a freezing winter day. Can’t you just feel the tingling cold creeping into each finger and toe? Have you ever come back in from the cold only to worry because a couple digits are still white and numb?

According to Beth Averbeck, HealthPartners Senior Medical Director for Primary Care, you might be experiencing Raynaud’s (pronounced ray-nose) disease – a blood vessel disorder that limits blood flow in the extremities, usually in response to cold temperatures or stress.

With Raynaud’s, your hands, feet or select fingers and toes will turn white, blue or both and take far longer to warm up than the rest of your body. Sometimes it can also affect your ears and nose. Raynaud’s is fairly common, with up to 10% of the population experiencing symptoms, and the majority are women.

What is Raynaud's disease?

Raynaud’s disease (also called Raynaud’s phenomenon or Raynaud’s syndrome) occurs when the blood vessels in the hands and feet constrict in an overactive response to cool temperatures. People with Raynaud’s have extra sensitive blood vessels that become more narrow than normal, causing their hands and feet to feel temporarily cold and numb. It may happen during the winter time, or even in an air conditioned room. It can take 15 minutes for normal blood flow to return after warming.

There are two types of Raynaud’s: primary and secondary.

  • Primary Raynaud’s is the most common version (90% of those with symptoms) and isn’t linked to any underlying issues. Although people might experience discomfort while their fingers are numb and cold, it’s fairly harmless. Doctors haven’t identified any particular reason why this happens.
  • Secondary Raynaud’s signifies there is a link between these symptoms and another medical condition – usually an autoimmune disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. It can also be caused by other secondary factors, such as taking certain medications, smoking, frostbite or jobs with repetitive motion or vibration.

What are the symptoms of Raynaud’s disease?

Symptoms can include:

  • Cold hands and feet
  • Fingers and toes that turn white or blue due to cold or stress
  • Numbness or tingling
  • A prickly sensation or throbbing feeling upon warming again

Symptoms of Raynaud’s include fingers that turn white or blue due to cold or stress
Symptoms of Raynaud’s include fingers that turn white or blue due to cold or stress

How is Raynaud's diagnosed?

Your doctor can reach a diagnosis by asking you questions about your symptoms and doing a physical exam. It’s also helpful if you can show them a photo of the affected area.

While there’s no test to determine whether you have Raynaud’s, your doctor may do a blood test to rule out other conditions that might be causing your symptoms.

How is Raynaud's treated?

If you have secondary Raynaud’s (caused by something else), your doctor can treat the underlying condition, which may help improve your symptoms.

There’s no treatment for primary Raynaud’s (when it occurs on its own). But you can try to prevent it by avoiding things that trigger your symptoms.

Things you can do to help with Raynaud's

Try these tips for preventing Raynaud’s attacks:

  • Bundle up outside – Take precautions in cold weather with thick clothing, especially on your hands and feet. Run the heat in your car before driving in the winter, and try using chemical warming packs in your mittens to help keep your hands warm for extended periods outside.
  • Stay warm inside – Air conditioning can have similar effects as cool air outside, so set your air conditioner to a comfortable temperature. You can also wear socks around the house and when sleeping, and use an insulated cover when drinking a cold beverage.
  • Avoid certain medications – Some medications can trigger Raynaud’s symptoms, including beta blockers (for high blood pressure), hyperactivity disorder medications, sumatriptan or ergotamine (for migraines), and certain over-the-counter cold medicines. Your doctor can help you determine if any of your current medications could worsen your symptoms.
  • Reduce stress – Emotional stress has been known to trigger Raynaud’s symptoms for some people. Help prevent it by taking care of your mental health and finding ways to manage stress.
  • Don’t smoke – Tobacco causes your blood vessels to constrict, limiting blood flow and worsening symptoms.

While there’s no specific treatment for Raynaud’s, talk to your primary care provider or a rheumatologist if you’re experiencing symptoms.