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Wednesday 19 May 2021

Three Things I Don’t Know (Part I): Cold

So, I asked myself, what unanswered scientific questions do I have, and are there answers out there for me? I had a think. And I came up with a list of three questions – and did my research. So here is the first of my three “Things I don’t/didn’t know” – let’s find out whether there’s an answer!

Why do both children AND fatter people feel the cold less?

People with a higher BMI have more fat on their body; fat acts as an insulator, and keeps them warmer, meaning they feel the cold less than people with a lower BMI. ...So why do children also feel the cold less? Children tend to be smaller, have less fat on their bodies than grown ups, and have a bigger surface area to bulk ratio.

I turned to the internet…

Interestingly, this topic seems to be suffused with myth.

Children, those wise mummy-bloggers warn us, do feel the cold, and you better wrap them up warmly to prevent them from getting hypothermia. Any insistence that they don’t is just stubbornness (that a good mother (because it’s always on the mother) should have trained out of them) – children like to control their own clothing, and don’t like restrictive layers. They’re willing to put up with coldness just to have their way.

This seems to me several layers of subterfuge too many. Besides, I know this isn’t true. I distinctly remember being in primary school and standing (still) in the playground with light snow falling, wearing just a white t-shirt. I was goose pimpling, but I didn’t feel cold. I wondered why. These days, the circulation in my fingers is so poor I can be in agony whilst other people are comfy in a light jumper. If I put my hands on thermochromic paper, it registers my wrists, and then nothing. I have ghost hands. They are cold and dead. I don’t “suspect” something has changed: I know.

wal_172619 via Pixabay

Other bloggers report that children take their layers off claiming to be too warm – and indeed feel warm to the touch. So are they all lying to us? Do children have a collective conspiracy to convince us they don’t feel cold? No. Apparently there are papers out showing that children have reduced sensitivity to cold... but I can’t find them.

And it shouldn’t be surprising if they do. Different people have different heat sensitivities. Like fatter people. Or men and women. Yes… Studies have found that making offices comfortable actually means calibrating them for men<[1]; women tend to need them 2.5 degrees warmer... Women have a lower average skin temperature – which is what determines how we perceive cold. This may be because women vasoconstrict blood flow sooner and longer than men. Oestrogen also thickens blood, making it harder to warm extremities, especially during ovulation. Lower muscle levels also mean a lower resting metabolism and thus lower blood flow.

Cold sensitivity can also be genetic – or environmental (nature versus nurture), with people who spend more time in cosy warm places less able to adjust and cope in the cold. People even feel cold more if they see other people looking cold – which means you can catch goose pimples like yawning!

But why, why, why do children feel it less?

Some sources suggest children’s smaller bodies are more efficient thermoregulators. But this doesn’t explain why children are just as likely as anyone else to get hypothermia (afterall, it’s important to remember that feeling cold is not the same as being cold). Others think kids both heat up and cool down faster, so activity can be very effective at keeping them warm – even too warm. They also sweat less (which must make cooling down harder). It’s been suggested that children’s metabolisms are different, but it’s not clear how: unlike men, they don’t have higher muscle masses.

There isn’t a lot of (findable) science on this, and it’s possible this is just something we don’t know. However, if you can find papers or know anyone working on the topic, leave a comment or Tweet us @TWeDK to share the information!

why don't all references have links?

[1] Kingma, Boris, and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt. Energy consumption in buildings and female thermal demand. Nature Climate Change 5.12 (2015): 1054-1056.

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