How the body loses heat
Physiologically, heat is generated in the muscles by metabolic chemical reactions, mainly in the liver. Some heat is lost through the lungs, although 90-95% is lost through the skin. Heat is transferred from the core to the skin by blood passing through peripheral blood vessels.
The rate of heat loss is determined by the extend to which the peripheral blood vessels dilate; fully dilated they will allow blood to travel 100 times faster than when constricted, thus losing body heat faster. Heat loss rates are also greatly increased by sweating, especially in dry environments.
How the body controls heat loss
The body controls heat loss by tightening the blood vessels under the skin, restricting the flow of blood – to the peripheral blood vessels (‘Vasoconstriction’). The development of peripheral vasoconstriction allows a cooler, outer ‘shell’ to form an insulating barrier that slows heat loss from the body’s core. Hands and feet have fewer large blood vessels, and when the flow of blood is restricted it is harder for the blood to keep flowing to these areas which quickly become cold.
How heat transfers from the skin to the surrounding environment
Heat loss is due to one or more of the following – convection, conduction , evaporation or radiation. In comfortable environments, about 65% is lost through radiation, with most of the rest through evaporation. In cold environment, most heat lost is via convection and conduction.
Convection happens when air or water with a lower temperature than the body comes into contact with the skin and then moves away. An example of convection is blowing on hot food to cool it down. The amount of heat loss depends on the temperature difference between the body and environment plus the speed with which air or water is moving.
Conduction is the transfer of heat to objects or substances the body comes into direct contact with. Metal and stones are good heat conductors, which is why they feel cold to the touch, even at room temperature. Air conducts heat poorly, which is why still air is an excellent insulator. Water conductivity is 240 times greater than that of dry air.
Evaporation is responsible for 20 – 30% of heat loss in temperate conditions. About 2/3rds of evaporative heat loss occurs from the skin in thermo-neutral conditions. The remainder happens in the lungs and airways. In cold conditions, airway evaporative heat loss increases as the incoming air is humidifed and warmed.
Even in hot conditions hands can become very cold if the person has been even mildly sweating a cool breeze can easily make the hands feel very cold.