Changes in or extreme climates can often have an effect on disease conditions.  In some cases, there are certain types of weather that can be helpful in controlling or improving a condition; other times, climate can impact disorders negatively in terms of symptoms and disease progression.  Here we consider the effects of cold weather and temperatures on autoimmune disease.

Why Does Cold Air Affect Pain & Flares?

The first thing to mention here is that autoimmune conditions come in all shapes and sizes, and as such are affected by many factors.

In general, weather extremes of any kind will place additional stress upon the body, which is usually not helpful for those suffering from a host of conditions, autoimmune and otherwise.  Thus, generalized stress can increase the incidence and severity of autoimmune conditions in a non-specific way, simply by adding to the heightened physiological demands of the body during such periods. Other conditions such as cold agglutinin disease, which is a variant of autoimmune hemolytic anemia, only occur during periods of lowered body temperature.  This emotional and/or physical stress can leave an autoimmune sufferer more susceptible to flares, which might be better controlled in more temperate weather.

More specifically, it seems that one likely cause of cold-induced pain in many cases is the fact that smaller blood vessels tend to spasm in low temperatures, which leads to a restriction of blood flow to the associated areas.  This is known as Raynaud’s phenomenon when it is secondary to an established autoimmune disease and it is something that many autoimmune patients know all too well. The spasms can cause extreme pain, swelling, numbness and discoloration, and they occur most prominently in the fingers, toes, ears and nose (because these are all areas with very small vessels and therefore less blood flow and adaptive ability).  It is possible, though not certain, that similar problems in larger joints (and therefore vessels) are related in terms of pathology.

What is the Best Way to Combat Cold Weather Effects?

Just as is the case in people without autoimmune conditions, extreme cold requires some contemplation and preparation.  On particularly cold days, one should dress in layers, being sure to wear gloves and a hat; this serves the dual purposes of keeping joints warm and more flexible, and reducing overall cold stress.  If it is absolutely necessary to remain outside for long periods, it is crucial that one plans to take breaks and go inside occasionally, preferably before symptoms can begin to flare.

And while patients should consider exercising indoors during these temperature extremes, it is important, when doing so outdoors, to remain active for the duration, in order to keep joints and muscles warm and more flexible, making them less prone to pain and inflammation.  Finally, in extreme autoimmune cases, some people have found that changing climates (by moving) is quite helpful, though clinicians and researchers are divided on the issue, and it is, once again, very personalized as to the benefits.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • What is the best climate, if there is one, for my condition(s)?  Is it worth considering moving?
  • What are the recommended protective/preventive measures I should take when out in extreme cold temperatures?
  • Can you provide me with any resources or information regarding the effects of cold weather on autoimmune disease, or disease in general?
  • What is your opinion of the barometric pressure theory of joint pain and swelling?
  • Are there other causes of cold weather complications in autoimmune disease, besides vessel spasms and those mentioned above?