Expert answers: Cold weather brings on this agony

Since the weather's turned so cold my fingers have been going numb and are really painful. I thought I had chilblains, but it's absolute agony at times. My husband thinks I should see a doctor, but it seems such a silly thing to bother my doctor with, but it is very painful.

Raynaud's phenomenon is a common disorder in which the small blood vessels in the extremities are over-sensitive to changes in temperature. It affects between three to 20 per cent of the adult population worldwide, mainly females and there may be as many as ten million sufferers in the UK.

Raynaud's is most commonly found in females and approximately 10 per cent of women in the UK suffer from Raynaud's to some degree. The condition can affect children, adolescents and adults. Many sufferers have never seen a doctor, as they are unaware that their condition has a name or that there is anything that can be done to help.

In this condition, the blood supply to the extremities, usually the fingers and toes but sometimes also the ears and nose, is interrupted. During an attack they become first white and dead looking. They may then turn blue and finally red and burning when the blood flow is restored. There may be considerable pain, numbness or tingling. These symptoms are due to an intermittent lack of blood in the affected parts when the arteries normally supplying them spasmodically contract.

An attack will often be triggered by touching cold objects or exposure to cold of any kind. Emotions, such as anxiety, may also play a part as can smoking.

Many treatments are available for Raynaud's phenomenon. Treatment depends on the severity of the condition and for those with a mild condition practical measures such as using hand warmers, thermal gloves and hats help to alleviate symptoms. Patients should be advised that an even, ambient temperature is as important as keeping warm because often it is not the absolute temperature, but a small change in the ambient environment, which precipitates an attack. Cold draughty places should therefore be avoided where possible.

If the condition is severe, the GP can advise on the different types of drugs available, which include vasodilators – drugs which open up the small blood vessels. Patients often have to try several before they find one that works.

Many people with Raynaud's try natural products such as vitamins, fish oil, evening primrose oil, gingko biloba and ginger. These simple measures seem to help some patients and are popular as they can be purchased without prescriptions.

Anyone with Raynaud's should be strongly encouraged to stop smoking as it causes narrowing of the blood vessels.

Paul Charlson, GP from Brough

Chilblains are small, itchy swellings on the skin that occur as a reaction to cold temperatures. They affect the body's extremities, such as the toes, fingers, heels, ears and nose.

Chilblains are uncomfortable but can be prevented.

However, your problem does not sound like chilblains but Raynaud's syndrome, which is a spasm of the small arteries feeding the fingers. This is an exaggerated response to cold. Most people suffering from this problem do not have a root cause but some do have a linked condition.

It is therefore important that you do consult your GP as you may need investigation to exclude one of a number of linked conditions.

There is also effective medication for Raynaud's syndrome which you might consider. I would therefore encourage you to seek medical advice.

Elaine Douglas, A chartered psychologist who specialises in family and child relationships

From what you say it may be that you have a problem with circulation, and yes, I do think that you should visit your doctor to get things checked out. You say that you are in agony, so it's apparent that whatever is causing the problem is making you feel ill.

From a psychological point of view I am interested in your last comment which suggests that you think this is something too trivial to bother your doctor with. I suspect you may be a very stoical kind of person who feels that they should put up with pain and discomfort because it's just one of those things.

Perhaps you feel your doctor will dismiss your problem and make you feel silly for seeking advice. I don't think that this will be the case. If you're not the sort of person who is always at the doctor's surgery over something and nothing it will be on record that you only trouble your doctor when you feel it's necessary.

If it is something to do with circulation then he/she will be able to advise you whether you need to take medication and /or need to work out ways of managing the problem. Please go and talk to someone.

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University

Strangely enough my daughter suffers from this as well but it took ages before she went to her GP.

You do need to go to your GP, who will discuss with you the options for treating this relatively common complaint, particularly at times of extreme cold snaps like we have now.

No point in suffering in silence here, you need to get some advice and your GP will be sympathetic and I am sure helpful.

Dr Carol Burniston, Consultant Clinical Child Psychologist

This is not my area as I am not medically qualified. I do think that your husband is right however and it would be a good idea to visit your GP.

The symptoms you are describing could be Raynaud's syndrome which affects your circulation. People often describe their fingernails going "blue" and their hands and feet turning a whitish blue. I understand it can be very painful.

Your doctor will be able to advise you of any appropriate treatment. If you wish to obtain more information before your appointment, you could access the BUPA fact sheet on www.bupa.co.uk/factsheets/html/raynaudsphenomenon.