Even if you don’t live in an area that has bitterly cold winters it’s almost a given that you or someone in your family is going to come down with something this winter. But you can feel better if you know what to do for common winter health problems.
As I write this Andi is at the urgent care. She thought she had a cold but it may be more serious. If you think an illness requires treatment from a doctor you should always err on the side of caution. But there are a lot of common winter health problems that you can treat at home.
The common cold is a really annoying bug. You can help prevent it by washing your hands regularly. If you touch surfaces used by others it’s especially important. Door handles, light switches, and grocery cart handles are three sources of infection that we all touch regularly. And if someone in the house is already sick remember that plates, glasses, silverware, and even fabric like towels and clothing may harbor the bug. To stop from re-infecting yourself use disposable facial tissues instead of a handkerchief. Stay hydrated while you have symptoms. Drinking hot liquids or eating soup can help keep sinuses open and that will help you feel better. Keep warm but don’t cover up too much if you’re running a fever. There are products that claim to shorten the length of a cold and, if you catch the symptoms early enough, you may want to try one. Just remember, colds usually don’t last long and you can binge watch your favorite T.V. shows while you’re resting.
Sore throats are almost always caused by a viral infection. But there’s also some evidence that going from a warm environment (inside your home, office or car) to the cold outdoors can cause a sore throat. If you have a sore throat, try gargling with warm salt water; use a teaspoon of salt dissolved in a glass of water (boiled then allowed to partially cool). The anti-inflammatory properties of the salt water are soothing although they won’t heal the infection. There are also commercially manufactured sprays and lozenges that will help numb your throat. When you go outdoors in winter cover your mouth and nose with a scarf to help prevent sore throats. If you run a fever or have other symptoms you should consult with your doctor.
Flu can be deadly especially to those over 65 years old and to those with chronic health problems like kidney disease and diabetes. If you develop flu-like symptoms and are in a high-risk group you should seek your doctor’s advice and care. While flu vaccines are available it’s up to you whether you want to get the shot or not. If you have the flu drink plenty of liquids, rest as much as possible, and watch for symptoms (high fever, symptoms related to your chronic condition, difficulty breathing, etc.) that indicate you need to see your doctor.
Norovirus is often called the “winter vomiting bug” because it occurs most often in winter and those affected vomit; a lot. To avoid catching this bug wash your hands often especially after touching door handles, light switches, etc. If you do come down with this unpleasant illness be sure to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. You may want to stick to a bland diet as well. The BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet is often recommended by doctors. Norovirus normally is gone in a couple of days. If symptoms persist, call your doctor.
Asthma is very often triggered by cold air. Wheezing and shortness of breath are common symptoms. If you have asthma you need to be very careful in winter! If at all possible stay indoors on very cold, windy days. Wear a scarf over your nose and mouth if you do have to go outside. Exercise induced asthma is exacerbated by cold so take extra precautions and don’t overdo outdoor activities. Be sure you take medications as directed and always keep your rescue inhaler with you.
Painful joints seem to be exacerbated by cold weather. Be sure to dress warmly and avoid being out in the cold for long. Gentle exercise also helps. If you have access to an indoor pool swimming is an excellent exercise for arthritis and other conditions that affect the joints. Anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce the pain but always consult your doctor before taking medications, even the over-the-counter ones.
Chilblains are small swellings on the extremities (fingers, feet, ears, and nose) that occur after exposure to cold. They cause a burning, itchy feeling that intensifies in warmth. Many people get chilblains without even knowing what they are. They’re not dangerous unless the swelling develops into a sore that can become infected. If you have chilblains keep an eye on the affected area and contact your doctor if you develop any signs of an infection. The itchiness can be soothed with an over-the-counter itch cream.
Frostbite is more common than you may realize. It’s possible to have a mild case of frostbite without even knowing it. Frostbite can lead to serious complications including increased sensitivity to cold, increased risk of developing frostbite again long-term or permanent numbness in the affected area, changes in the cartilage between the joints (frostbite arthritis), growth defects in children, if frostbite damages a bone’s growth plate, and even gangrene (decay and death of tissue resulting from an interruption of blood flow to the affected are) which can result in amputation. Frostbite begins with a cold feeling and a pricking numbness in the affected area. If not stopped by getting warm the condition progresses to red, bluish-white, or grayish-yellow skin. Hard, waxy looking skin is also a symptom. You may find you’re clumsy due to the joint and muscle stiffness frostbite can cause. If you have frostbite it is imperative that you protect the skin from further damage. Cover the area with dry, preferably warm gloves or other garments. Get out of the cold as quickly as possible. Slowly re-warm the affected area. Use warm, not hot, water to warm the skin. Never rub snow on frostbite! This is an old wife’s tale that will make the condition worse!
Heart attacks happen more in winter than in warmer months. Cold weather increases blood pressure, putting more strain on your heart. And your heart also has to work harder to keep you warm. If you have to shovel heavy snow or do other winter-related chores, your risk increases. Dress warmly if you must go outdoors. Keep your house warm and/or dress in extra layers to keep warm inside. If at all possible hire someone to shovel snow or do other outdoor chores for you. Educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of heart attack and remember, heart attacks in women often present with different symptoms than the ones with which you may be familiar. If you suspect you or someone else is having a heart attack call 911 immediately!
Christmas Tree Syndrome is a term coined by Dr. Lawrence Kurlandsky after he noticed an increase in allergy symptoms in the days leading up to Christmas. Symptoms of Christmas Tree Syndrome are similar to hay fever and are caused by mold growing in the tree which sends out tiny spores into the air. Keeping the room cool and well-ventilated will help reduce the likelihood of spores being released and antihistamines will help with the symptoms. And next year you may decide to get an artificial tree! Everybody sing, “Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, you’ve really got me sneezing!”
Knowing what to do for common winter health problems can make your winter easier so learn, prepare, and stay healthy!