Icy fingers and toes: Poor circulation or Raynaud’s phenomenon?

If your fingers or toes ever turn pale (or even ghostly white) and go numb when exposed to cold, you might assume you just have poor circulation. That’s what I used to think when I first started noticing this problem with my own hands many years ago. It usually happened near the end of a long hike on a spring or fall afternoon, when the temperature dropped and I didn’t have any gloves handy. My pinkie, third, and middle fingers would turn white, and the fingernails took on a bluish tinge. As I soon discovered, I have Raynaud’s phenomenon, an exaggeration of normal blood vessel constriction.

Raynaud’s phenomenon: Not just poor circulation

When you’re exposed to a cold environment, your body reacts by trying to preserve your core temperature. Blood vessels near the surface of your skin constrict, redirecting blood flow deeper into the body. If you have Raynaud’s phenomenon, this process is more extreme, and even slight changes in air temperature can trigger an episode, says rheumatologist Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, senior faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing and corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

"Cold weather is the classic trigger for Raynaud’s phenomenon. But it can occur any time of year — for example, when you come out of a heated pool, walk into an air-conditioned building, or reach into the freezer section at the supermarket," he says. In addition to the hands, Raynaud’s can also affect the feet and, less often, the nose, lips, and ears. During an episode, the small arteries supplying the fingers and toes contract spasmodically, hampering the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the skin. Some of these vessels even temporarily collapse, and the skin becomes pale and cool, sometimes blanching to a stark white color.

Technically, Raynaud’s phenomenon is a circulation problem, but it’s very different than what doctors mean by poor circulation, says Dr. Shmerling. Limited or poor circulation usually affects older people whose arteries are narrowed with fatty plaque (known as atherosclerosis), which is often caused by high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking. In contrast, Raynaud’s usually affects younger people (mostly women) without those issues — and the circulation glitch is generally temporary and completely reversible, he adds.

Preventing and treating Raynaud’s phenomenon

As I can attest, the best treatment for this condition is to prevent episodes in the first place, mainly by avoiding sudden or unprotected exposure to cold temperatures. I’ve always bundled up in the winter before heading outside, but now I bring extra layers and gloves even when the temperature might dip even slightly, or the weather may turn rainy or windy. Other tips include preheating your car in winter before getting in, and wearing gloves in chilly grocery store aisles.

In general, it’s best to avoid behavior and medicines that cause blood vessels to constrict. This includes not smoking and not taking certain medications, such as cold and allergy formulas that contain phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine and migraine drugs that contain ergotamine. Emotional stress may also provoke an episode of Raynaud’s, so consider tools and techniques that can help you ease stress.

If necessary, your doctor may prescribe a medication that relaxes the blood vessels, usually a calcium-channel blocker such as nifedipine (Adalat, Procardia). If that’s not effective, drugs to treat erectile dysfunction such as sildenafil (Viagra) may help somewhat. You may not need to take these drugs all the time, but only during the cold season, when Raynaud’s tends to be worse.

Warm up affected areas quickly

Once an episode starts, it’s important to warm up the affected extremities as quickly as possible. For me, placing my hands under warm running water does the trick. When that’s not possible, you can put them under your armpits or next to another warm part of your body. When the blood vessels finally relax and blood flow resumes, the skin becomes warm and flushed — and very red. The fingers or toes may throb or tingle.

What else is important to know?

Some people with Raynaud’s phenomenon have other health problems, usually connective tissue disorders such as scleroderma or lupus. Your doctor can determine this by doing a physical exam, asking you about your symptoms, and taking a few blood tests. But most of the time, there is no underlying medical problem.

Thinking about COVID booster shots? Here’s what to know

Vaccination against the virus that causes COVID-19 is the most important lifesaving tool we have in this pandemic. Fortunately, the vaccines authorized in the US have proven remarkably safe and effective. And we’ve known from the start that the strong protection they provide would likely wane over time.

But has protection declined enough to warrant booster shots? Studies published in the last few months by researchers in the UK, Israel, and the US (reviewed here and here) raised this possibility, and Israel and the UK have already started ambitious booster programs.

First things first: Vaccinate everyone

In the US, the CDC and FDA have reviewed the necessity, safety, and effectiveness of boosters for the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. I’ll discuss these recommendations in a moment.

But first, it’s important not to overlook this fact: vaccinating the unvaccinated should be a much bigger priority than giving booster shots to those who’ve received vaccines. That goes for people in the US who have been unable or unwilling to get the vaccine, and people in places throughout the world with limited access to vaccines.

Broadening the pool of people with initial vaccinations would not only save more lives than promoting boosters, but would also reduce COVID-related healthcare disparities between richer and poorer countries. That’s why the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a moratorium on booster doses. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has announced a promise to donate another half billion vaccines to countries with low vaccination rates, bringing the total US commitment to donate 1.1 billion doses. The administration emphasizes that starting a booster program in the US and helping other countries get their citizens vaccinated are not mutually exclusive.

Is there a difference between a booster dose and a third shot?

It’s not trick wording: not all extra vaccine doses are boosters. In August 2021, the FDA approved a third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for people who are immunocompromised. This includes people who have HIV and those receiving treatment for cancer that suppresses the immune system. For them, the extra dose is not a booster; it’s considered part of their initial immunization series.

Getting the timing and dose right on vaccine boosters

Ideally, vaccine boosters are given no sooner than necessary, but well before widespread protective immunity declines. The risks of waiting too long are obvious: as immunity wanes, the rates of infection, serious illness, and death may begin to rise.

But there are downsides to providing boosters too early:

  • Side effects might be more common. While studies published to date suggest that boosters are safe, we don’t yet have long-term data.
  • The benefit may be small. It may be better to wait on boosters if most people are still well-protected by their initial vaccinations.
  • Current boosters may not cover future variants. If new variants of concern emerge in the coming months, boosters may be modified to cover them.
  • Waiting longer before a booster might lead to a stronger immune response. As noted by Dr. Anthony Fauci recently: “If you allow the immune response to mature over a period of a few months, you get much more of a bang out of the shot.”

The recommended dose for the Pfizer/BioNTech booster and Johnson & Johnson booster is the same as the initial dose. For the Moderna booster it’s a half-dose, which may reduce the risk of side effects and increase the number of doses available to others.

Recommendations for vaccine boosters

For the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, a booster is recommended at least six months after the second dose for those who are

  • 65 or older
  • 18 to 64 and at high risk for severe illness from COVID, such as people with chronic lung disease, cancer, or diabetes
  • living or working in a high-exposure setting, such as residents of long-term care facilities, healthcare workers, teachers and day care staff, grocery workers, and prisoners.

No Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna boosters are recommended for the general population yet. That’s because the initial doses still appear to be providing good protection against severe illness and death for those at lower risk of severe COVID-related illness.

For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a booster is recommended for everyone 18 or older two or more months after the first dose. 

Mixing or matching booster shots

The FDA and the CDC have concluded that mixing or matching vaccines when getting a booster dose is safe and effective. Regardless of the initial vaccine you received, any of the three available vaccines may be given as a booster.

Plenty of unknowns

The release of these new recommendations for vaccine boosters raises a number of questions:

  • How convincing is the safety data? Reports to date suggest boosters are safe, but we need more research and real-world data.
  • Will the boosters be modified to protect against emerging variants of concern?
  • Will additional boosters be needed in the future? If so, how often?

There are important gaps in our knowledge of how well vaccine boosters work. We need larger and longer-term studies involving a broad range of participants representing all races and ethnicities and people with compromised immune systems. Look for further information in coming months.

What’s next?

You can expect the FDA and CDC to expand booster recommendations based on continued review and analysis of ongoing research. In the meantime, we should redouble our efforts to vaccinate people who haven’t yet received vaccines. Boosters can play an important role in protecting individuals. But, as CDC director Dr. Rochelle Wallensky notes, “we will not boost our way out of this pandemic.”

Is a common pain reliever safe during pregnancy?

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For years, products containing acetaminophen, such as the pain reliever Tylenol, were largely viewed as safe to take during pregnancy. Hundreds of widely available over-the-counter remedies, including popular cold, cough, and flu products, contain acetaminophen. Not surprisingly, some 65% of women in the US report taking it during pregnancy to relieve a headache or to ease an aching back.

But recently, a group of doctors and scientists issued a consensus statement in Nature Reviews Endocrinology urging increased caution around acetaminophen use in pregnancy. They noted growing evidence of its potential to interfere with fetal development, possibly leaving lingering effects on the brain, reproductive and urinary systems, and genital development. And while the issue they raise is important, it’s worth noting that the concerns come from studies done in animals and human observational studies. These types of studies cannot prove that acetaminophen is the actual cause of any of these problems.

An endocrine disruptor

Acetaminophen is known to be an endocrine disruptor. That means it can interfere with chemicals and hormones involved in healthy growth, possibly throwing it off track.

According to the consensus statement, some research suggests that exposure to acetaminophen during pregnancy — particularly high doses or frequent use — potentially increases risk for early puberty in girls, or male fertility problems such as low sperm count. It is also associated with other issues such as undescended testicles, or a birth defect called hypospadias where the opening in the tip of the penis is not in the right place. It might play a role in attention deficit disorder and negatively affect IQ.

Risks for ill effects are low

If you took acetaminophen during a current or past pregnancy, this might sound pretty scary — especially since you’ve probably always considered this medicine harmless. But while experts agree it’s important to consider potential risks when taking any over-the-counter or prescription medicines during pregnancy, you shouldn’t panic.

“The risk for an individual is low,” says Dr. Kathryn M. Rexrode, chief of the Division of Women’s Health, Department of Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Chances are pretty good that if you took acetaminophen during a pregnancy, your baby likely did not, or will not, suffer any ill effects.

The research on this topic is not conclusive. Some information used to inform the consensus statement was gathered from studies on animals, or human studies with significant limitations. More research is needed to confirm that this medicine is truly causing health problems, and to determine at what doses, and at what points during a pregnancy, exposure to acetaminophen might be most harmful.

Sensible steps if you’re pregnant

Three common-sense steps can help protect you and your baby until more is known on this topic:

  • Avoid acetaminophen during pregnancy when possible. Previously during preconception and pregnancy counseling, Dr. Rexrode had warned patients against using NSAID drugs, such as Advil and Aleve, and suggested taking acetaminophen instead. “Now I also tell people that some concerns have been raised about acetaminophen use during pregnancy, and explain that its use should be limited to situations where it is really needed,” says Dr. Rexrode. In short, always consider whether you really need it before you swallow a pill.
  • Consult with your doctor. Always clear acetaminophen use with your doctor, particularly if you are going to be using the medicine for a long period of time. They might agree that taking it is the best option — or suggest a safer alternative.
  • Minimize use. If you do need to take acetaminophen during pregnancy, take it for the shortest amount of time possible and at the lowest effective dose to reduce fetal exposure. “This advice about the lowest necessary dose for the shortest period of time is generally good counseling for all over-the-counter medication use, especially during pregnancy,” says Dr. Rexrode.

While all of this is good advice for using acetaminophen, there are times when it’s riskier not to take it. For example, if you have a high fever during pregnancy — which can harm your baby — acetaminophen may be needed to bring your fever down. Provided it’s advised by your doctor, the benefits of acetaminophen use in this case outweigh the potential risks.