What Happens To Your Body In Extremely Cold Weather

Changes in weather come with a lot of changes in your physical and mental health.

Unless you’re blessed to live in a magically warm climate all year round ― looking at you, Californians and Floridians ― bitter, frostier weather is rapidly approaching (if it hasn’t arrived already). And that can come with some scary and unexpected mental and physical side effects.

Changes in weather come with a lot of changes in your body and mind, according to Dr. Albert Ahn, a clinical instructor of internal medicine at NYU Langone Health. These shifts are important to keep in mind so you stay healthy during snow storms and all winter long.

We looked into how the winter affects your body so you know what to look out for when the temperature drops way, way low. Below are some changes you may not have realized are happening:

You burn more calories.

Research shows that your basal metabolic rate ― AKA how many calories you burn just by existing, without doing any excess activity ― increases slightly in colder temperatures. That’s because it takes more work for your body to stay warm. But don’t count on this to be part of a weight loss plan, Ahn said.

“It’s not significant enough to notice a difference, but you do tend to burn more calories when the body is trying to keep itself warm,” he explained.

Your fingers “shrink.”

Ever notice how your rings feel a little loose during those wintry days? It’s not in your imagination. Extremities, such as your fingers and toes, tend to swell up in hotter climates, Ahn explained.

“You tend to see less of that in the winter,” he said. “Cold weather tends to constrict the blood vessels to preserve body heat and maintain core body temperature.”

That might mean you end up getting slightly less blood flow to your extremities, which could make your fingers feel like they’re smaller, he added.

You could experience extra pain in your extremities.

Some people experience a condition called Raynaud’s disease, which makes parts of your body feel numb and cold in response to colder climates or stress, Ahn pointed out. This usually occurs in areas like your hands, feet and ears, and it’s caused by the smaller arteries that supply blood to the skin constricting excessively in response to the weather.

“It’s not dangerous, but it can be very uncomfortable or painful,” Ahn said. Lifestyle modifications, like wearing proper winter outerwear and avoiding prolonged periods in the cold, can help ease the symptoms, he noted.

Your vision might suffer

Mind your eyes. Exposure to excessively cold temperatures, cold wind and snow may affect your vision, according to experts. Sun bouncing off snow piles or banks may also pose a risk by potentially causing a cornea injury or burn. Make sure to wear proper eyewear when participating in snow sports and try to wear sunglasses when you can.

Your face gets red.

If your nose looks like Rudolph’s after being out in the winter air ― or your cheeks, for that matter ― it’s likely because the blood in those areas is being redirected to more vital areas, like your heart or lungs. When you get warmer, the blood returns back to its normal locations, flushing you in the process.

You might be at a greater risk for a heart attack.

This is usually more common for older adults and those at risk for cardiac issues, but it’s something everyone should still keep in mind, Ahn said.

“This increased risk isn’t just due to exertion because you’re shoveling snow,” he explained. “When the body is trying to preserve heat, it does increase the pressure on the heart. It has to work harder to pump blood to extremities. It can also increase blood pressure marginally.”

Ahn recommends practicing a healthy lifestyle and staying vigilantly aware of heart attack symptoms (you can read a list of them here).

You may experience a drop in mood.

The winter blues are real. A decrease in temperature likely means fewer daylight hours. That can lead to a dip in mood due to a lack of Vitamin D, Ahn said. This can range from mild to severe, with the more extreme cases likely being seasonal affective disorder, a depression-related mental health condition most commonly associated with the winter months.

Ahn recommends plenty of exercise and spending as much time as possible exposing yourself to daylight. Vitamin D supplements may also help with milder mood issues, he said. Check with your doctor if you feel like your mood is severely impacted and it’s interfering with your everyday life. You may need more targeted mental health treatment.

You might be at risk for hypothermia or frostbite.

Direct exposure to subzero temps (so a windchill of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit) for even just five minutes can put you at risk for frostbite or permanent skin damage. Prolonged time in extreme cold can also increase an older adult’s chances of developing hypothermia, a condition where your body temperature gets dangerously low. “For an older person, a body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower can cause many health problems, such as a heart attack, kidney problems, liver damage, or worse,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

Seems like the perfect excuse to just stay inside, right?

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