The Cause of Clammy Hands and Feet
Many people live with hands and feet that are perpetually cold. Cold hands and feet are often caused by a condition called Raynaud’s. According to an article in Harvard Women’s Health Watch, it causes the body to have an exaggerated response to cold temperatures. For people with Raynaud’s, when the body is exposed to even slightly colder conditions, the blood vessels in the skin begin to contract and shunt blood flow to vital organs, leaving the skin with a pale color and feeling cold. It sounds extreme, but this is a very common ailment, and it is not usually indicative of a larger health problem. For some however, Raynaud’s is the not the cause of their symptoms. A subset of people who experience cold hands and feet also suffer from wet hands and feet. This describes what many refer to as clammy hands and feet. Clammy is defined as “being damp, soft, sticky, and usually cool” and “lacking normal human warmth” in the Merriam Webster dictionary. For those that suffer from clammy extremities there is another physiological explanation: hyperhidrosis. It is also possible that some people are living with both Raynaud's and hyperhidrosis, as, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, about 5% of the population is thought to have Raynaud's while other sources reveal that about 2.8% of the population has hyperhidrosis.
Hyperhidrosis, as defined in a textbook, is a condition in which people sweat in excess of what is needed for thermoregulation. Thermoregulation is the body’s way of regulating its own internal temperature, even when exposed to cold or hot external environments. So, people with hyperhidrosis will sweat in any environment, whether it is beneficial or not. When people with hyperhidrosis sweat in a cold environment, it creates a perfect situation for clammy hands and feet to develop. Many people who deal with symptoms like have clammy hands and feet are actually suffering from a type of hyperhidrosis called primary focal hyperhidrosis. This type of hyperhidrosis usually begins during adolescents and it can cause people to sweat profusely from specific body parts, including the hands and feet. This is why a person may have clammy hands or feet but the rest of their body is not effected the same way. There are certain clues a person can check for if they want to tell if they have hyperhidrosis, like excessive sweating in certain areas and sweating that is not in response to any known environmental or physiological triggers.
How Cold Temperature Affects Someone with Hyperhidrosis
For people who don’t suffer from hyperhidrosis, sweating is a normal physiological process that occurs in order to maintain homeostasis. There is a good reason why humans sweat: healthy sweating occurs in response to hot temperatures, as a mechanism to keep the body cool. Sweat can cool the body through a process called transpiration, in which heated sweat is released from the body onto the surface of the skin, which then evaporates into the air. This is important to understand in relation to hyperhidrosis. When a person has hyperhidrosis, they sweat constantly, for an unknown reason. This means that they are often sweating in cold temperatures, when sweating is actually a disadvantage, and so they will often experience clammy hands and feet as a result. They have a constant source of sweat cooling their hands or feet down, which can create some very uncomfortable situations. Another reason that people with hyperhidrosis often sweat from the hands and feet is because there are a high concentration of eccrine (sweat) glands on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. People with hyperhidrosis may also experience excessive sweating of other body parts with a high concentration of eccrine glands like the armpit, forehead and back. The good news is that primary focal hyperhidrosis is not a dangerous condition, although at times it can be distressing.
How to Treat and Manage Clammy Hands and Feet Related to Hyperhidrosis
There are a few ways that a person with hyperhidrosis can prevent and treat clammy hands and feet. The first way is to treat the underlying cause, which is hyperhidrosis. These treatments stop hand and foot sweat and its odor which in turn prevents clammy hands and feet from occuring. There are various treatments available, which were outlined in articles written for the journal Dermatologic Clinics, including:
Typically, antiperspirants are a good first choice for someone who is just starting treatment for hyperhidrosis. They are noninvasive, inexpensive and easily accessible for patients. In order to begin the other forms of treatment that are listed above, a person would need to manage their hyperhidrosis with a doctor. Each treatment has benefits and drawbacks, and a dermatologist can help an individual with hyperhidrosis figure out which treatment options work for them.
There are other ways to control sweaty feet and hands that don’t involve medical treatments. Some practical habits can reduce the amount of sweating experienced by those with hyperhidrosis. One of these is to wear shoes that do not promote sweating and picking absorbent socks that will keep moisture away from the feet. It can be a little trickier to deal with sweaty hands, but some find that using antiperspirant wipes and keeping a handkerchief, or other absorbent cloth, in their pocket is useful. There is a clear correlation between stress triggers and the sweating that is experienced by those with primary focal hyperhidrosis. Some people may find that practicing anxiety reduction methods that can reduce sweating can be beneficial in limiting the amount of sweat they produce.
Other Reasons for Clammy Hands and Feet
While hyperhidrosis and Raynaud's are common reasons that people may have clammy hands and feet, they are not the only possible causes. Sometimes clammy skin is an indicator of another potential health condition or issue. Hot flashes are one potential cause of clammy skin. These are typically experienced when a women is in menopause due to fluctuations of the amount of estrogen that is in the body. Hot flashes are a normal part of the aging process for menopausal women and are not a cause for concern, although they can be disruptive and frequent. Another common cause of clammy skin is fever. However, this is not a reason that someone would have skin that is perpetually clammy. Fever is usually an indicator that the body is fighting off an illness or infection and should not last for an extended period of time.
Some more serious health problems can lead to clammy hands and feet, so it is important to speak with a doctor if you are concerned. An overactive thyroid, known as hyperthyroidism, can cause skin to be clammy for an extended period of time. This is because it speeds up the body’s metabolism which can lead to skin being excessively warm. Luckily, there are medications to treat the condition which can help get rid of clammy skin. In very rare cases, a heart attack can lead to someone having clammy skin temporarily. If you experience chest pain, shortness of breath, pain in the back or arm, nausea, and lightheadedness along with suddenly clammy skin then you need to seek medical attention. However, it is important to remember that in the vast majority of cases clammy hands and feet are not indicative of a dangerous condition.
Not all cases of clammy hands and feet are caused by hyperhidrosis, but for those cases that are, there is hope! Most people can significantly reduce their symptoms and live a more comfortable life with proper treatment.
- Cold fingers, cold toes? Could be Raynaud's. (2009). Harvard Women's Health Watch. Retrieved September 18, 2018, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/cold-fingers-cold-toes-could-be-raynauds
- Raynaud's. (n.d.). National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Retrieved September 18, 2018, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/raynauds
- Definition of Clammy. (2018). Retrieved September 18, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clammy
- Pariser, D. M. (2014). Hyperhidrosis (4th ed., Vol. 32). Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier.
- Huddle, J. R. (2014). Hyperhidrosis: Causes, Treatment Options and Outcomes. New York, NY: Nova Science.
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- Shenefelt, P. D. (2017). Use of Hypnosis, Meditation, and Biofeedback in Dermatology. Clinics in Dermatology. doi:10.1016/J.clindermatol.2017.01.007
- Barrell, A. (2018, July 12). What causes clammy skin? Retrieved April 25, 2019, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322446.php