8 Cold weather health hazards and how to avoid them


 Baby, it’s cold outside and that means certain health issues increase with wintry weather.  If you’re not careful, your health can suffer from dry, frosty conditions.  Here are 8 health challenges that old man winter can aggravate making them much worse than other times of the year:

  1. Asthma attacks

For those with asthma, winter presents a special challenge.  Asthma attacks are more likely to occur during this season for a couple of different reasons – one is spending more time indoors.  Being stuck indoors means more exposure to triggers of asthma such as mold, pet dander, dust mites, and even fire components in a fireplace.  The second reason is even when a person ventures outside, breathing in bitterly cold air can bring on an asthma attack.

What to do:  To reduce asthma attacks during winter, try limiting time around animals, use mite-proof covers on the mattress, box springs, and pillows, and when outdoors, cover the nose and mouth with a scarf to keep from breathing in cold, dry air.

  1. Catching a virus

It’s not that cold winter air has a direct effect of contracting a virus, but it does mean you are spending more time indoors around other people who may have a virus.  This close proximity allows viruses an easy way to spread amongst many people.

What to do:  Since avoiding people for 3 months out of the year is not realistic, the best thing to do is to stay healthy by eating a nutritious diet, exercising, keeping well-hydrated, reducing stress, and getting adequate sleep.  Also, frequent hand-washing is a must – especially after shaking a person’s hand.

  1. Weight gain

Not only are there major holidays emphasizing food (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day) occurring during the coldest months of the year, but many of us also slow down or even suspend physical activity.  By the time spring arrives, the numbers on the scale have crept up.

What to do:   To combat weight gain during winter, start by making a conscious effort to eat mindfully at meals and snacks. Keep portion sizes reasonable and avoid skipping meals to keep up metabolism.  Thirty minutes daily of moderate to vigorous physical activity – brisk walking, an indoor spin class, or even yoga – can aid in keeping the pounds from coming on.

  1. Depression

The gray days of winter can bring on the blues as in seasonal depression. As the hours of sunlight diminish, the “winter blues” can turn into seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  Increased hours of darkness along with dealing with cold, sometimes dangerous weather, can negatively affect the psyche of any one of us.

What to do:  When suffering from SAD, an effective treatment is to use light therapy.  Introduced in the 1980s, light therapy makes up for the lack of sunlight during the fall and winter.  Every day, a person sits in front of special light box that mimics natural sunlight causing changes in brain chemicals regulating mood.

It also helps to have an active social schedule to get out of the house frequently instead of spending time coop up all winter long.

  1. Arthritis pain

The cold, brisk air is not a friend to arthritis.  In fact, it is during the winter when those with arthritis find themselves suffering the most.  Cold and wet weather along with changes in barometric pressure are the suspects in making it worse.

What to do:  To minimize the impact of cold weather on joints, dress warmly in layers.  When venturing outdoors, be sure to have on mittens, socks, and something covering your head.  Avoid sitting around too much.  Keep moving as physical activity is good for achy joints.  This can be a good time to join a water aerobics class or walk indoors on a treadmill.

  1. Hypothermia and Frostbite

Hypothermia is an abnormally and dangerously low body temperature occurring when a person is exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Symptoms include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, slurred speech, and drowsiness. Frostbite is an injury to the body caused by freezing.  Body parts most often affected include the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Symptoms include reduced blood flow to hands and feet, numbness, tingling or stinging, aching and bluish skin.

What to do: The first step to avoid either scenario is when going outside in cold weather is be prepared in how you dress – wear a scarf or knit mask covering the face and mouth, a water-resistant coat and gloves, and several layers of loose-fitting clothing. Also wear warm boots to protect feet and toes. If a person has hypothermia or frostbite, call 911. While waiting remove any wet clothing, get them inside a warm building warming them up under dry layers of blankets or clothing and place areas affected by frostbite in warm-to-touch (not hot) water.

  1. Overexertion when shoveling snow

 shoveling snow is strenuous work. People with medical conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease should talk to their healthcare provider before shoveling snow as the combination of cold temperatures and strenuous exercise can trigger a heart attack.

What to do: If you’re out of shape, let someone else do the shoveling. Otherwise, avoid shoveling snow first thing in the morning as that’s the time of day most heart attacks occur. Warm up before shoveling taking a few minutes to stretch, move about and get your blood flowing. Use a small shovel – a large shovel full of wet snow is especially heavy.  Dress appropriately covering your hands, head, and mouth. Shovel snow in shifts. If you need a rest, take it. Watch for warning signs of a heart attack – tightness in the chest, lightheadedness and dizziness are all signs. If you suspect you’re having a heart attack, call 911.

    8.   Slippery conditions leading to falls

Many injuries related to cold weather happen from falls on ice-covered sidewalks, steps, driveways, and porches. The CDC says that approximately 1 million Americans are injured annually as a result of falling on ice and snow.  Out of that number, 17,000 of these falls are fatal.

What to do: Keep your walkways and steps as free of ice as possible by using rock salt or sand. When walking outdoors when icy, wear appropriate footwear that provides traction on snow or ice. Always keep your hands free and out of your pockets.  This way if you fall you can better catch yourself using your hands or arms. Don’t get distracted with a cell phone either when walking on ice conditions. It helps to take smaller, shorter steps when walking for stability. Always use handrails if available and when getting out of your vehicle, swing both legs out and place feet flat on the ground before getting up.  Using both feet provides more stability than just one foot.

8 Cold weather health hazards and how to avoid them
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Dr. David Samadi

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Dr. David Samadi