Human responses to cold

Alaska Med. 2007;49(2 Suppl):29-31.


The thermoneutral ambient temperature for naked and resting humans is ca. 27 degrees C. Exposure to cold stimulates cold receptors of the skin which causes cold thermal sensations and stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic stimulation causes vasoconstriction in skin, arms and legs. Diminished skin and extremity blood flow increases the thermal insulation of superficial tissues more than 300% corresponding to 0.9 clo (0.13 degrees C x m(-2) x W(-1)). With thermoregulatory vasoconstriction/ vasodilatation the body heat balance can be maintained within a range of ca. 4 degrees C, the middle of the range being at ca. 21 degrees C when light clothing is used. Below the thermoneutral zone metabolic heat production (shivering) is stimulated and above the zone starts heat loss by evaporation (sweating). Cold induced vasoconstriction increases blood pressure and viscosity and decreases plasma volume consequently increasing cardiac work. Cold induced hypertensive response can be counteracted by light exercise, while starting heavy work in cold markedly increases blood pressure. Under very cold conditions the sympathetic stimulation opens the anastomoses between arterioles and venules which increases skin temperatures markedly but temporarily, especially in finger tips. Adaptation to cold takes ca. 2 weeks, whereafter the physiological responses to cold are attenuated and cold exposure is subjectively considered less stressful.

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization
  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Cold Temperature / adverse effects*
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Humans
  • Thermogenesis / physiology*
  • Vasoconstriction
  • Vasodilation