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Seasoned Pro: Be Mindful of These Winter Health Hazards

Medically reviewed on Feb 7, 2018 by L. Anderson, PharmD.

Flu Season Can Last Until 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 November are the best months to get the vaccine, if you still have not had a flu shot, it's not too late. This year's severe flu season is 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 shot for protection if you skipped it in the fall, or have already had the flu but did not get a shot.

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 get a flu shot each year - 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 and stress can be especially hard at this time of year.

But SAD is treatable with light therapy, counseling and prescription medications such as bupropion (Wellbutrin), extra outdoors time in the winter, and daily exercise.

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. The take home message? Be vigilant about healthier lifestyles when it's cold outside - get more exercise and watch what, and how much, you put on your plate.

Norovirus: The Cruise Ship Virus

Baby it's cold outside! Perfect time for a cruise, right?

Winter months are a great time to get away from the brutal chill and jump on a cruise to an island. But norovirus may be lurking. 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.

Where's My Kleenex?

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 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 from a viral cold? Wash your hands regularly, keep a safe distance from sick people, and get plenty of sleep, good nutrition, and exercise.

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, and 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, itchy 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.

Arthritis: Winter Can Be a Pain

"My joints ache, it must be this 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 in 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 living can take its toll.

Now that the big holidays are over, take a look at your diet and make sure you aren't reaching for those mid-afternoon unhealthy snacks. Schedule in an exercise routine that has the flexibility to account for changes in the weather. 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. There's nothing better for destressing the soul than being outside on a clear, sunny and crisp winter's day.

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.

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

Hypothermia (a dangerous drop in body temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit ) 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.

Finished: Seasoned Pro: Be Mindful of These Winter Health Hazards

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Sources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seasonal Influenza: Flu Basics. Accessed February 7, 2018 at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/
  • American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Asthma and Winter Sports. Accessed February 7, 2018 at https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/asthma-library/asthma-winter-sports
  • Cleveland Clinic. Seasonal Depression. Accessed February 7, 2018 at http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/neurological_institute/center-for-behavioral-health/disease-conditions/hic-seasonal-depression
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Norovirus. Accessed February 7, 2018 at https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/index.html.
  • Researchers Probe Why Colds Are More Likely in Winter. Drugs.com. Accessed February 7, 2018 at https://www.drugs.com/news/researchers-probe-why-colds-more-likely-winter-55143.html

Further information

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

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