As anyone who’s lived through a frigid Canadian winter can tell you, the cold does strange things to your body. You shiver and shake uncontrollably, your skin reddens, your nose runs, and you might even feel like you suddenly need to pee—yes, it’s a true cornucopia of odd and vaguely off-putting reactions.
There’s a reason for all of it, though. Extreme cold can be deadly, so your body is simply taking steps to make sure your vital bits are kept as warm and protected as possible. It’s more concerned with keeping you alive than keeping you comfortable.
So how exactly do these weird reactions help combat the cold? Let’s break down five of the most common cold-weather symptoms:
1. Your cheeks get red.
That rosy glow, synonymous with snowball fights, ice skating, and sleigh rides, is actually the result of vasoconstriction—blood vessels narrowing near the surface of the skin, shunting blood to the interior of your body in order to help shield your organs from the cold. When these blood vessels quickly dilate then constrict, they sometimes burst, causing your cheeks (or other areas of your body like your thighs and butt) to turn red.
Vasoconstriction is also responsible for numb fingers and toes. With blood flow to your extremities restricted, your hands and feet can’t keep warm… but when the alternative is hypothermia, that’s not so bad, right?
2. You start to shiver.
When the little thermoreceptors in your skin sense a drastic drop in body temperature, they send warning signals to your brain. Your brain then orders your muscles to start spasming in an effort to generate heat and bring your body temperature back within a normal range. The colder you get, the harder you’ll shiver.
It’s definitely not the most efficient way of warming up (all that teeth chattering and shaking burns a lot of energy with minimal results) and should be taken as an indication that you maybe need to head inside for a bit.
3. Your nose runs.
No, it’s not because you caught a cold from being outdoors (the old belief that plummeting temperatures cause sickness is persistent but false, though it may play a loose role in helping the virus spread).
Producing mucus is actually your nose’s way of warming and humidifying the air traveling to your lungs—a necessity to protect their sensitive tissue. Cold, dry winter air triggers a sharp increase in your nose’s fluid production, which leads to the runny drip and constant sniffling you have to deal with every time you step outside.
If the drippy annoyance is too much to handle, you can try using a scarf to cover your nose and mouth—air inhaled through fabric will be warmer and (ick, apologies) wetter, which will help keep your runny nose in check.
4. You feel sluggish.
This one is caused by a combination of things: fewer hours of daylight, the deceleration of our nervous systems, and an increase in our bodies’ lactic acid production.
Wintertime means shorter days, which in turn means less sunlight. This change can affect your sleep cycle and lead to a general sense of fatigue (sometimes known as “winter tiredness”), as well as lead to an increase in your body’s level of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. When temperatures really plunge into the sub-zeroes, your body slows your nervous system and reallocates carbs to increase its production of lactic acid in an effort to preserve energy and warmth.
With so many internal factors at play, it’s no wonder that wintertime has us feeling like all we wanna do is curl up under a blanket and eat something carb-y and loaded with cheese (just me?).
5. You might need to pee.
There’s no pretty way to say it—when things get chilly, you may find yourself looking for the nearest bathroom. Vasoconstriction (remember, the thing that turns your cheeks red?) is responsible for this uncomfortable symptom, too. When the blood vessels near the surface of your skin contract to restrict blood flow, your blood pressure rises. This causes your kidneys to work overtime pulling out excess fluid in an effort to reduce the pressure, which in turn means you’ll have to pee more frequently. Isn’t science fun?
Now that you know the reasons behind your body’s cold-weather shenanigans, you need to learn how to deal with them! Give these three simple methods for warming up a whirl:
1. Warm yourself first.
Don’t head for the thermostat if you’re freezing—heat your body directly for quicker and cozier results. Layers (especially heated ones!), thick blankets, warm slippers, and a hot drink in hand will do wonders for that bone-deep chill.
2. Turn on the ceiling fan.
We usually associate fans with summertime, but you should be using yours in the winter, too! All that warm air your heater pumps out rises to the ceiling—get it circulating properly by running your ceiling fan on its lowest setting in a clockwise direction.
3. Switch between hot and cold water in the shower.
You might think that the fastest way to warm up is with a nice hot shower, but that’s only partially true. Hot water pulls your blood to the surface of your skin while cold water sends it rushing back to your organs again—cycling between the two temperatures improves circulation and warms you up quicker than if you were to stand under hot water alone.