What Does Exposure to Cold Do to My Body?

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on May 21, 2023
3 min read

Super-cold air, wind, or water can make you sick. It’s called cold stress. It can affect you in different ways, depending on climate conditions, how you’re dressed, medical conditions you might have, and how long you’re out in it.

Here’s a rundown of the most common cold-related illnesses:

Chilblains, or pernio as it is also called, happens when the small blood vessels in your skin get inflamed after being exposed to cold -- but not freezing -- temperatures. These clusters of small blood vessels (capillary beds) get red and itchy, or they swell. Patches usually appear on your fingers, toes, ears, and cheeks. Blisters can pop up, too.

Chilblains can catch you off guard, because it doesn’t have to be freezing outside for you to get them. They can show up if your skin is exposed over time to temps as high as 60 F.

In severe cases, ulcers can form. They usually clear up in 1 to 3 weeks -- especially if temperatures warm up. But the redness and itching may return with the next cold snap.

Young adults are most likely to have this condition. It happens when skin reacts to cold and breaks out in welts. The areas are reddish and itchy, like hives. Your hands may get puffy while holding a cold drink. Or, your throat and lips might swell when you eat or drink something frosty.

The condition often goes away with age, but reactions can be severe. Swimming in cold water can lead to serious reactions. Frigid air can be a factor, too. It can make your body shut down

This is tricky because you can’t feel it. The affected skin and tissue go numb. It’s most likely to strike your fingers or toes, or a part of your face that peeks out, like your ears, cheeks, chin, or nose. The exposure can lead to severe damage. The worst cases need amputation (complete removal of the body part).

Stay on the watch for yellowish-gray or white skin with a firm or waxy feel, or lack of feeling in a part of your body. To prevent this, make sure to dress appropriately for cold temps, especially if you have poor blood circulation.

Hypothermia means that your body temp has dipped below normal. This is caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Your body loses heat faster than it can make it. Your thinking and movements slow down, too. It can make it hard for you to know what’s happening.

This condition moves in stages. How far it gets depends on how long your body is exposed.

Cold weather can also put a strain on your heart. People with heart disease might have chest pain and discomfort.

Early signs of hypothermia include getting the shivers. This likely is your first clue that temps are dropping. Among the other symptoms of mild hypothermia:

Late signs of hypothermia include the shivers coming to a stop. Also:

  • Your speech is slurred. You might mumble.
  • You get sleepy, and start not to care about what’s happening.
  • Your breathing gets slow and shallow.
  • Your heart rate slows down and gets weaker.

Also called “immersion foot,” this happens when your feet are exposed too long in a cold, wet setting. If your feet are already wet, trench foot can strike even if the temps get up to 60 F.

Wet feet lose heat super fast – 25 times quicker than dry feet. So your body leaps into gear to preserve its heat. It cuts off circulation (as well as oxygen and nutrition) to your feet.

Signs of trench foot include:

  • Red, numb, swollen skin
  • Tingling pain
  • Leg cramps
  • Blisters and ulcers
  • Gangrene (tissues in your feet start to die, causing them to turn blue, gray, or deep purple).