What Are the Effects of Cold Weather on Your Body?

How to stay safe in the cold, whether you're facing a polar vortex, a 'bomb cyclone', or just hoping to squeeze in an outdoor run.

We usually believe that nothing—not even the weather—can stop us from getting in a good workout. That's what reflective leggings, waterproof jackets, and extra layers are for, right?

But when the temps dip way, way down, it may actually be healthiest to bundle up and stay put on the couch—or at least stick to a living room workout. That's because brutally cold weather comes with some frightening health effects. Here's what can happen to your body when it's freezing (or below!) outside, and how you can protect yourself.


It doesn't have to be freezing outside for you to shiver, but it does happen quickly and easily when temperatures drop. Shivering is actually an impressive built-in safety mechanism for protection from the cold. It helps the body stay warm, Ivan Miller, MD, medical director of emergency medicine at Westchester Medical Center told Health. "Shivering is many, many little muscle contractions that generate heat," said Dr. Miller.

While the results might not be quite as dramatic as moving around or jumping up and down, shivering is surprisingly effective at maintaining body temperature, at least in the short term, said Dr. Miller.

And even though shivering itself isn't a major health threat, it is a sign you should go warm up. "It's important to be mindful when you're in the cold and feel yourself shivering," added Dr. Miller. "You really should seek a warmer environment." If you get colder, your health could be at risk (more on that later).

Muscles that aren't busy contracting and shivering might simply tighten in cold weather. Just like you warm up cold muscles before a workout, cold weather can literally make you feel stiffer and tighter, explained Dr. Miller.


Cold weather isn't just a figurative headache making your commute more cumbersome and your gym plans more treacherous. It could also be a literal pain.

Fluctuations in barometric pressure—the pressure of the air in the atmosphere—are thought to trigger headaches or migraine in some people, and certain winter storms bring sudden, drastic drops in pressure.

Cold temperatures themselves can also hurt, much like the pain from downing an ice cream too quickly. Brain freeze is a type of cold stimulus headache that occurs in response to sudden cold over the palate; inhaling cold air or simply encountering it externally can have similar effects.

Runny Nose and Watery Eyes

Very cold air also often happens to be very dry air. Dry air doesn't feel so good going into the lungs, so the nose works to add moisture to the air you inhale. If the air you breathe is extra-dry, your nose has to add extra moisture, and when there's a lot of fluid, some of it drips unpleasantly out of your nostrils.

Cold, dry air can also irritate the eyes, which, obviously, like to stay moist at all times. When your eyes are dry due to that wintery wind, you reflexively pump out extra liquid to compensate. Some of that is bound to trickle out—and hopefully won't freeze your cheeks!

Shortness of Breath

Cold, dry air can also trigger lung irritation, especially in people with asthma, bronchitis, or other lung conditions. You might find that inhaling frigid air leads to wheezing, coughing, or some shortness of breath, particularly if you have one of these underlying conditions.

However, you'll probably know if this applies to you and the shortness of breath shouldn't strike out of the blue. "That wheezing and coughing is something that happens every time they are exposed to the cold," said Dr. Miller.

If you do experience sudden shortness of breath, especially along with chest pain, nausea, or other similar symptoms, seek emergency medical attention, as those could be signs of a heart attack. Heart attacks may be more common after shoveling snow, particularly among people who aren't used to such vigorous exercise.

Increased Calorie Burn

Your shiver-filled walk from the bus stop to your office isn't exactly going to replace a full-blown winter workout. But the silver lining to all this dreaded weather is that the mechanisms your body uses to try to keep you warm ramp up calorie burn, at least a little.

"Efforts to maintain body temperature expend energy," explained Dr. Miller. Cold weather-induced shivering can activate brown fat and the hormone irisin, both of which can help the body burn fat.

Dry Skin and Windburn

Whether you're high up on a ski slope, sledding down a hill, or going for a run, no matter how bundled up you are, you can feel the cold wind on your face. This leads to the red cheeks you see after you do these outdoor activities.

The cold, dry air that gives you a runny nose and dry eyes is also pulling moisture away from your skin. This is why you tend to have dry, tight skin in the winter. You may need to use a thicker moisturizer for your skin and a humidifier for your home to give your skin extra moisture.

In addition, the cold air is battering and sloughing off the top layer of your skin. This leaves your skin more exposed to UV damage, so it's important to slather on that SPF even when the UV rays don't feel strong.


"If the temperature outside is below freezing, a toe or a fingertip might actually freeze," added Dr. Miller, an injury known as frostbite. Frostbite is a bit like a burn, damaging different layers of tissue as the condition progresses.

Your body recognizes sub-zero temps as a threat pretty quickly and snaps into action to keep you alive. One of the first things that happens is blood flow slows to your fingers and toes. "The body tries to compensate for cold and prevents heat loss by shunting blood away from the skin and the extremities to maintain heat near vital organs," explained Dr. Miller.

"Those areas are allowed to get colder to protect the rest of the body," said Dr. Miller. This process keeps crucial internal organs safe, but it's not good news for fingers and toes.

"A first-degree burn is similar to first-degree frostbite, which involves the most superficial layer of the skin," said Dr. Miller. As deeper layers of tissue freeze, the damage is harder to treat.

Symptoms of Frostbite

It's important to know what the signs of frostbite are—you may not notice it's happening until someone else points it out to you. Here's what to look out for:

  • White or grayish skin
  • Blistering and swelling skin
  • Numb, cold, and hard skin

You'll notice numbness or tingling in the toes or fingers (it can also affect the tip of the nose). If you don't warm up, the affected area can lose all feeling, then turn white or pale.

You're most at risk for frostbite if you have a medical issue that causes you to have blood circulation problems or are underdressed for the weather. Exposed skin is most at risk, but you can still get frostbite on body parts bundled up in hats, gloves, and scarves.

How to Treat Frostbite

If any part of your body becomes numb when you're out in the cold, go indoors pronto.

  • Warm up the affected areas using your body with heat or warm water. "We do see frostbite in the emergency department, and sometimes [affected body parts] can be rewarmed and essentially thawed, and many people do regain function," noted Dr. Miller.
  • Don't use hot water or heat from a heater, fireplace, or heating pad. These might burn the affected numb skin too easily.
  • Avoid rubbing frostbitten body parts. Dr. Miller warned, "you'll lose some sensation due to the cold, and you could actually do damage to your skin with vigorous rubbing." If any area hurts for more than a few hours or starts to turn blue or black—signs of fourth-degree frostbite—see a healthcare provider immediately.


The major health threat of not warming up when you take a dangerous dip in body temperature is hypothermia. Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (Reminder: 98.6 degrees is normal). It happens when you are in very cold temperatures for so long that your body can't generate enough heat to keep it warm.

"The lower core body temperature goes, the more severe the symptoms," said Dr. Miller. Shivering becomes uncontrollable, and you might become confused or disoriented. "As hypothermia progresses, there can be a very dangerous lack of judgment that can lead people to make bad decisions and not get out of the cold," added Dr. Miller.

Symptoms of Hypothermia

How long it takes to get to hypothermia varies from person to person and depends on factors like body size and composition, age, and how many layers you're wearing, said Dr. Miller. Here are signs to look out for before your body gets affected by hypothermia.

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation

Call 911 if you suspect someone has hypothermia. Without treatment, hypothermia can be fatal. While waiting for medical professionals, get the person indoors and warmed up with dry, warm clothing or blankets. Use the same treatment you would for treating frostbite.

A Quick Review

Cold temperatures can do a number on your body. It can affect your skin, eyes, muscles—pretty much your whole body. Prevent some of these effects by layering clothing and protecting your eyes and skin. Know and recognize the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia, and check yourself and others when you're out in the cold—frostbite and hypothermia can happen faster than you might realize. When in doubt, get indoors quickly and warm up.

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10 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. American Lung Association. Weather and Your Lungs.

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  4. Skin Cancer Foundation. Cold Dry Air Requires a Little Extra Skin Care.

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