7 common winter health issues (and how to combat them)

Herbal tea and lemon and flu things
Photo by yari2000/Shutterstock

It’s easy to love winter if you try. But it’s even easier to hate it, especially when you’re dealing with health issues. The season’s cold, dry weather can exacerbate everything from asthma to your chances of getting struck with the flu. Sure, you could escape to a hot and sunny destination when winter hits, but your best defence is knowing how to protect yourself when the temperatures plummet. Here are seven common winter health issues and how to combat them.

The Flu

Everyone knows that winter is flu season, but exactly why this virus tends to hit harder from November to March is often debated. Although some attribute the spread of the flu to lifestyle factors, like spending more time indoors and a lack of vitamin D, studies have shown that the virus is more stable when the air is cold and dry. Unlike cold viruses, flu viruses spread through the air, and according to this study, they’re able to stay in the air longer in winter-like conditions. Therefore, the flu is actually more likely to be transmitted on your way to-and-from the subway than once you’re inside it. But that doesn’t mean you should forfeit the outdoors altogether. Instead, make sure you get enough rest and regular exercise, stay hydrated, and eat a nutritious and well-balanced diet. If you’re healthy enough to get it, the flu shot can also help.

Dry Skin

For some, dry skin is nothing a little moisturizer can’t fix. For others, however, it can lead to serious cracks that are not only painful, but can even lead to infection if they’re not properly cared for. Our hands are often hit the hardest because we use them so often. They’re also most likely to be exposed to water and cold weather. When washing your hands, use a mild or moisturizing hand soap before drying them thoroughly. After each hand-washing, apply a good hand lotion that contains petroleum jelly to lock in moisture. It also helps to always wear gloves in cold weather or when using harsh cleaning products, and to moisturize your hands overnight.

Painful Joints

According to the Arthritis Foundation, changes in temperature and barometric pressure can trigger joint pain, though researchers aren’t entirely sure why. What we do know, however, are ways to manage the pain when it hits. Dressing warmly during winter is extremely important if you suffer from joint pain. Always be sure to pay special attention to your head, hands, and feet, since the majority of body heat is lost from the extremities. It’s also important to keep up with regular exercise during the winter months, since a lack of physical activity can cause joints to stiffen.

Cold Sores

According to the Mayo Clinic, cold sores are caused by various strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Most people know that once you’re infected with the virus, it never fully goes away, lying dormant in the nerve cells of your skin. Recurrence can happen any time your immune system is compromised, but they’re more likely to crop up in the winter. Cold sores often triggered by exposure to wind and sun, fatigue, and a decrease in your overall health. Therefore, when you combine cold, dry weather, a busy time like the holidays, and cold and flu season, it’s the perfect cold sore-inflicting storm. As with any viral infection, fluids, rest, and adequate nutrition are your best defence. But if you do get struck with one, try an over-the-counter drying agent like alcohol and a cool, damp cloth to promote healing. Regularly applying lip balm will also protect your lips from future damage.

Asthma

Cold, dry air can trigger asthma attacks, which is why winter can be a brutal time if you have difficulty breathing. The dry, windy weather that many parts of the country experience in the winter can also stir up mold and pollen, which makes asthma sufferers even more prone to attacks. But staying indoors all winter isn’t good for anyone, and could even lead to other health issues on this list. When attempting to manage asthma symptoms, your best bet is to start by keeping a diary so that you understand exactly what type of weather conditions trigger your flare ups. Then, do your best to pay attention to weather reports, which can also include pollen and mould counts.

Heart Attacks

When your body is suddenly exposed to cold temperatures, your blood vessels constrict, which is why cardiologist Randall Zusman warns against stepping outside half-dressed for winter. He also advises dressing in layers, so that it’s easy to remove articles of clothing if you get too warm. If you do some form of physical activity while you’re all bundled up, you can overheat, causing your blood vessels to dilate and dramatically lowering your blood pressure. Combine one of these scenarios with overexertion, and you’ve got a serious mismatch between blood supply and demand, which is exactly what leads to a heart attack. It’s also why shovelling heavy, wet, or deep snowfalls can be extremely risky, so if you live in a particularly snowy part of the country, consider investing in a snowblower.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Everyone feels a little sluggish when winter hits, but if you’re feeling moody and completely zapped of energy, it might be more than just the “winter blues.” You could have Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, which strikes most people in the fall and continues throughout the winter months. Although it’s tough to pinpoint the exact cause, many health care providers believe it has something to do with the amount of sunlight we receive in the wintertime. Reduced sunlight can disrupt your internal clock and lead to a drop in chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin, both of which play a role in mood. That’s why the condition is sometimes treated with light therapy. Exercising regularly, getting outside, and finding a few things about winter to look forward to don’t hurt either.


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