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Surviving Winter With Raynaud’s

by Karen Ung
If the cold makes your fingers turn white and blue and feel like they’ve been smashed with a sledgehammer, you might have Raynaud’s. I’ve had the symptoms since I was little, but my family blamed them on bad circulation. Teachers would grasp my snowman-white fingers at the door after recess and say, “Cold hands, warm heart.” My mom found me space glove and sock liners, but my hands still hurt. It wasn’t until a few years ago that a doctor saw my funky colored fingers on a chilly day and asked, “Have you heard of Raynaud’s?” Suddenly my severe reactions to the cold (wanting to cry when it was +5C and I’d forgotten my gloves) made sense. While one way of dealing with Raynaud’s is to avoid cold; by dressing properly, it is definitely possible to stay active and pain-free in winter!

What is Raynaud’s?

Raynaud’s is an abnormal response to cold (or stress) that “causes an interruption of blood flow to the fingers, toes, nose, and/or ears when a spasm occurs in the blood vessels of these areas.”1  The spasms can cause pain, tingling, numbness, swelling, and color changes in your extremities. Typically, your fingers (or other affected parts) will turn white, then blue, then a bright shade of red when they warm up. If your hands get white and red blotches in the cold, that is a normal response and not an indication of Raynaud’s.
Known as Raynaud’s disease, syndrome, and phenomenon, the symptoms are the same, but causes vary. If you suspect you have Raynaud’s, speak to your doctor to rule out underlying conditions that could be causing it. 
About 5-10% of Americans are affected by Raynaud’s.2

Risks & Treatment

Besides causing pain, Raynaud’s increases the risk of frostbite and sores (and in extreme cases, gangrene)3, so care must be taken to keep extremities covered and warm. Some Raynaud’s sufferers may benefit from medication (vasodilators), topical treatments, or surgery, but the vast majority manage their symptoms with lifestyle changes.

Preventing Raynaud’s Attacks

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, but am sharing what has worked for me in dealing with Raynaud’s.

While being outside in the cold is a bigger challenge to those with Raynaud’s, there are things you can do to help prevent Raynaud’s attacks:

  • Keep your whole body warm by dressing in layers and wearing a hat. Raynaud’s spasms occur when your body gets cold, not just when your extremities are cold. Tips on dressing right are in this post. I wear thin base layers and mid layers when active, and thicker base layers and mid layers for when I’m not moving as much (waiting to pick the kids up from school). 
  • Wear gloves or mittens to protect your fingers. My favorite mittens are these women’s specific Black Diamond Ankhiale Goretex Mitts. They have long gauntlets to tighten over my jacket sleeves to keep cold air out, and are roomy enough to fit hand warmers. The leather palms make them tough enough to use in the backcountry and the goretex inserts keep my hands dry.
It was -20C on this day in Lake Louise, but we were well prepared.
  • Carry air activated, hand and toe warmer packets in case your mitts aren’t warm enough. I buy them by the case at Costco. There are also reuseable and battery powered hand and foot warmers, but you do not want to rely on these in the backcountry (it takes time/fuel to boil water to reactivate the reusable ones and for the latter, you have to extra batteries).
  • Handwarmers are lifesavers when you have Raynaud’s!
    Available on Amazon (affiliate link).
  • Wear wool socks and winter boots to protect your toes. Make sure footwear isn’t too small as tight footwear can restrict circulation! When purchasing boots, try them on with the socks you usually wear. I like Teko, Bridgedale, and Smartwool socks, but also have several pairs of inexpensive Kirkland merino wool hiking socks.
  • Wool socks for the win!
    Available on Amazon (affiliate link).
  • Wear ski goggles and a face mask, balaclava, or Buff in cold weather. This will protect your face and reduce the risk of frostbite.
    If you forget goggles, you’ll get EYEcicles (coined by AK On The Go)

  • Avoid handling cold items directly. Drink cold drinks from a double walled travel cup instead of a glass or hold the glass with a napkin. 
  • Minimize caffeine consumption and don’t smoke. Caffeine and smoking narrow blood vessels and exacerbate Raynaud’s. 
  • Maintain body temperature by eating regularly and staying hydrated. “Moderate dehyration can cause cold hands and feet.”4 
  • Manage stress. Stress can also trigger Raynaud’s spasms, so learn relaxation techniques or consider taking up meditation. 
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise improves circulation and also keeps you warm. 
  • Keep moving. Avoid standing or sitting around in the cold and keep moving as much as possible. Make big arm circles or roll your shoulders forward and clap your hands together (low to get blood into them).

I hope these tips will help you enjoy winter as much as I do! It took me a few years to get used to Alberta’s cold winters (I’m from Coquitlam, BC), but once I got cold weather gear and took up winter sports, winter is pretty fun!

Exploring an ice cave in March. I had to wear lots of layers, but it was worth it!

What helps you deal with Raynaud’s?


1,2,3 Frequently Asked Questions. Raynaud’s Association. http://www.raynauds.org/frequently-asked-questions/ Accessed December 7, 2016.

4 Dehydration – A major health concern. Water Industry. http://www.waterindustry.org/Water-Facts/dehydration-1.htm Accessed December 7, 2016.

For More Information

Visit Raynauds.org.

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