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Seasoned Pro: How to Stay Healthy This Winter Season

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Feb 15, 2021.

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Flu Season Can Last Into Spring

If you've had the flu, you'd probably rather forget it.

But influenza is a top viral killer each year, with deaths occurring most often in the vulnerable - the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, AIDS/HIV, and cancer.

Although September through October are the best months to get the flu vaccine, if you still have not had a flu shot, it's not too late.

  • Flu season is often unpredictable and may last well into spring.
  • Plus, different strains of the flu virus become active later in the season.
  • So you can still get a flu vaccine for protection if you skipped it in the fall, or have already had the flu but did not get a shot.

While the flu vaccine is not always 100% effective in protecting you from flu, if you do get it, it will be much less severe. Interestingly, according to the CDC, flu outbreaks are at an extremely low level this season so far in the U.S, possibly due to better-then-normal flu vaccination rates, social distancing, boosted hand-washing, and mask-wearing by the general public due to COVID.

Related: Is it a Cold, Flu, Hay Fever, or COVID-19?

Just like the flu, if you've had COVID, you'd probably rather forget it, too. But don't forget to get your COVID vaccine when it's your turn. Most of the world is just ramping up for COVID vaccines, and the jury is still out on whether boosters or a yearly shot will be needed to fend off COVID and its variants, so stay tuned.

Too Cold to Catch Your Breath?

Wintertime can wreak havoc on those who have asthma.

Venturing outside in the cold air may cause asthma attacks to worsen or occur more frequently.

  • To help avoid breathing in cold air, drape a scarf across your nose and face, or use a winter face mask that covers your mouth.
  • Try to do outdoor activities - like exercising or playtime for kids - indoors.
  • And don't let the indoor heat get too hot, either.

Be sure your medications and rescue inhaler have not expired, and keep an inhaler on-hand in case of a sudden attack. And be sure to get a flu shot each fall - those with asthma are always at risk for more serious flu complications.

Wintertime Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD, can occur due to decreased amounts of daylight during the winter months.

Fewer hours of bright light can disrupt the body's internal clock, causing a drop in the levels of a mood-affecting chemical called serotonin.

  • Add to that, levels of melatonin, which help to regulate sleep and wake cycles, can be altered, too.
  • Plus plenty of holidays fall within the winter months, and family loss, stress and travel can be especially hard at this time of year.

But SAD is treatable with light therapy, counseling, extra outdoors time in the winter, daily exercise, and prescription medications such as bupropion (Aplenzin, Wellbutrin SR, Wellbutrin XL), an SSRI or other antidepressant. Based on preferences and past history, antidepressant therapy may be continued year-round. Keep in mind that it may take up to 4 weeks to notice the full benefit from antidepressant treatment.

A Cold Heart Can Be Problematic

Studies have shown that the risk of heart disease is greatest during the cold winter months compared to warm summers.

A study from the European Society of Cardiology showed that heart disease risk factors like blood pressure, waist size and cholesterol were higher in the winter months of January and February, but lower in the summer.

  • Although there are no clear reasons why this happens, it may be that winter (and holiday) eating and exercise habits may be less healthy, leading to these slight changes.
  • Colder weather may keep you in from your outside walk or run.
  • In general, you may just burn less calories due to less activity.

The take home message? Be vigilant about healthier lifestyles when it's cold outside - get plenty of exercise and watch what - and how much - you put on your plate. Consider some indoor exercise equipment or joining a gym. A treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical is always a great back-up for rainy or frozen days, if exercise is okayed by your doctor.

Norovirus: The Cruise Ship Virus

Speaking of cold - perfect time for a cruise, right? Probably not on the top of your list right now due to the COVID risk. But in days past, winter months always seem like a great time to get away from the brutal chill and schedule a cruise to a warm, tropical island.

But norovirus may be lurking, too. On a cruise ship, norovirus spreads from person to person through contaminated food or water and contact with contaminated surfaces. It results in violent bouts of diarrhea and vomiting, and can keep you in your cabin for days.

Currently there is no treatment or vaccine for norovirus. The best way to prevent norovirus? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and FoodSafety.gov:

  • Always wash hands after using the bathroom and before preparing food. Wash with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
  • Promptly wash clothes or linens that may be contaminated with vomit or diarrhea in hot water and then dry.
  • Clean contaminated surfaces with a bleach-based cleaner.
  • Never serve, prepare or cook food if you have had diarrhea or been vomiting.

Cold Viruses Thrive in Winter

Colds aren't called "colds" for no reason - Yale researchers have shown that the rhinovirus, the virus responsible for the common cold, is able to replicate easier in colder temperatures.

Laboratory studies also show that defense mechanisms have trouble blocking the cold virus when in the cooler temperatures of the nose compared to the warmer temps of the lungs.

Catching a cold is more likely in the winter when people are huddled together indoors, in much closer proximity to each other.

So how to protect yourself (and others) from a viral cold?

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Keep a safe distance from sick people
  • Stay home from work or school when you are sick
  • Wear a mask to the doctor's office if you are sick (to protect others)
  • Get plenty of sleep, good nutrition, and exercise.

According to the NIH, more than 200 different viruses are known to cause the symptoms of the common cold. There are even coronaviruses that can lead to the common cold (but not the same coronaviruses that cause COVID-19).

And remember that a cold is a virus, and treatment with an antibiotic is of NO use, and may even be harmful, unless there's a seconday bacterial infection. Get plenty of rest, drinks lots of fluids, and treat your symptoms as needed.

The Winter Itch: Dry Skin

Do moisturizer and lip protection regularly feature on your shopping list throughout winter?

Winter is hard on skin and many people suffer from "xerosis" - otherwise known as good, old-fashioned dry skin.

  • Dry skin isn't a minor problem. It can be uncomfortable, itchy, unsightly and can affect anyone, no matter their age.
  • Long periods of time spent indoors exposed to various heating systems, cold wind, and strong winter sunlight can also exacerbate preexisting dry skin.

You can help to prevent dry skin by bathing in warm (not hot) water, using a soap that contains glycerin, and applying a moisturizer with glycerin or urea after bathing. Cover-up in harsh, cold winds (including your face), and use a humidifier to add moisture to the dry air in your house. Don't forget about your lips, too.

Arthritis: Winter Can Be a Pain

"My joints ache, it must be this cold, wet weather."

Maybe you've heard that from your relatives, or even said it yourself. Cold winter temps can worsen arthritis for many, but research doesn't really prove that cold weather is a direct cause of worsened arthritis.

Then why does this seem to happen? Cold weather can lead to morning joint stiffness because the fluid that surrounds your joints can expand when the air pressure drops. Some people can even predict the weather by the increasing pain in their joints.

To help prevent the pain, bundle up warm, set the heat to a comfortable temperature, use a heating pad if needed, and keep your joints active with daily exercise.

Stress and the Holidays

Winter contains an abundance of holiday family gatherings, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Gathering with loved ones can be wonderful, but stress, anxiety, and unhealthful eating can take its toll.

  • If you have an upcoming holiday, take a look at your diet and make sure you aren't reaching for those mid-afternoon unhealthy snacks. Watch your holiday feasts and alcohol consumption, but be sure to reward yourself, too, every once in a while.
  • Schedule in a daily exercise routine that has the flexibility to account for changes in the weather and planned activities.
  • While going to the gym is a good way to ramp up your exercise hours, plan to do some outdoor activity when the winter sun is shining.

Remember, while holidays always seem to be about everyone else, be sure to take time for your body and mind, too.

Snow and Ice: Accidents Can Happen

Accidents can happen any time of the year, but the winter season is especially full of risk. Icy roads, slick sidewalks, and tricky winter sports like sledding, snowboarding and skiing can result in bumps and bruises.

Hypothermia (a dangerous drop in body temperature below 95 degrees F [35 degrees C]) can be a true risk in the winter, too, especially in seniors. Look for these symptoms and call 911 if you see them: slowed or slurred speech, sleepiness or confusion, shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs, poor control over body movements, slow reactions, or a weak pulse.

Your car battery is prone to going dead, too, so be sure to keep an emergency weather kit on hand. This kit should contain:

  • a warm blanket
  • non-perishable food and water
  • cat litter for traction on ice
  • flares and a jumper cable
  • a map and a compass
  • a flashlight with extra batteries
  • a first-aid kit.

Finished: Seasoned Pro: How to Stay Healthy This Winter Season

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Sources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seasonal Influenza: Flu Basics. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/index.html
  • American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Asthma and Winter Sports. Accessed February 15, 2021 at https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/asthma-library/asthma-winter-sports
  • Cleveland Clinic. Seasonal Depression. Accessed February 15, 2021 at https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9293-seasonal-depression
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Norovirus. Accessed February 15, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/index.html

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.