Cold weather is rough on health. Colds and cases of life-threatening flu are rampant. Ice and snow increase the risk for dangerous falls.
Those problems are bad enough. But there also are hidden health dangers of winter that few people know about—problems that can turn you into a seasonal statistic.
Death rates are 25% higher in winter than in summer—with winter triggering more circulatory, breathing, hormonal and digestive problems, according to recent research published in The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Cold-weather risks to guard against…
• Dehydration. It sounds like a summer issue, but dehydration is a big cold weather risk, too, since the problem is less obvious this time of year.
For one thing, sweat evaporates more rapidly in cold, dry air, tricking you into thinking you’re not losing a lot of water from your body. But you are.
The body’s thirst response is reduced as well when temperatures are cooler, so you may not drink enough water.
Medications play a role, too. People who take fluid-draining drugs, such as diuretics, as well as other medications for high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disorders are at increased risk for dehydration. What to do…
Drink more water. If you have mild-to-moderate dehydration, marked by such symptoms as a dry, sticky mouth, sleepiness, dry skin, headache and/or dizziness, drink more water!
Chronic diseases—particularly diabetes, kidney disease and heart failure—put you at higher risk for dehydration year-round. If you have a chronic medical condition, ask your doctor for advice on how much fluid you should drink.
Call 911. If you have symptoms of severe dehydration, such as extreme thirst…irritability and confusion…feeling faint…little or no urination…sunken eyes…shriveled and dry skin (it lacks elasticity and doesn’t “bounce back” when pinched into a fold), this is a medical emergency, and you need to be rehydrated with intravenous fluids immediately.
• High blood pressure. When temperatures fall, your body conserves heat by constricting blood vessels—and those tightened vessels can lead to high blood pressure, which increases risk for heart attack and stroke.
Scientific evidence: The average systolic (top number) blood pressure reading was 5 mmHg higher in winter than in summer, according to a study of adults age 65 or older and published in Archives of Internal Medicine.
Even though everyone is at risk for cold weather increases in blood pressure, you’re especially vulnerable if you’ve already been diagnosed with high blood pressure. What to do…
Talk to your doctor if you take blood pressure medication. The dose of antihypertensive medication you take in the summer may not be high enough for winter control.
Dress warmly. To avoid blood pressure spikes when you’re outside in the winter, dress in layers and wear a hat, scarf and gloves. (Cold hands alone can spike blood pressure for hours.)
Keep it toasty indoors. Cooler indoor temperatures have been linked to higher blood pressure, according to a study published in Journal of Hypertension. Researchers advise people with high blood pressure to keep indoor temperatures at around 70°F.
Don’t overexert yourself. People with high blood pressure can have a heart attack if they’re unfit and try to shovel snow. Smart step: Ask your doctor to assess your overall health and give his/her OK for such activity before winter starts or initiating any exercise program. And if you do shovel snow, take breaks every 10 minutes or so and make sure you’re dressed warmly and are well-hydrated.
Get your vitamin D-3 level checked. Blood levels of this sunshine-produced vitamin can plummet during the winter—with research published in Circulation linking low levels to high blood pressure…and to nearly twice the risk for heart attack, stroke and heart failure. Ask your doctor to test your vitamin D-3 level. If it’s lower than 30 ng/mL, take 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily throughout the winter.
• Neuropathy. Cold slows the flow of blood to your hands and feet. With this decreased circulation, there’s an increase in symptoms of peripheral neuropathy—prickling, burning nerve pain in the hands and feet, along with numbness. The most common causes of peripheral neuropathy are diabetes and chemotherapy. What to do…
Keep your hands and feet warm. When you’re outside in the cold, wear thick gloves and thick socks. Dress in layers and always wear a hat.
Keep your feet dry. Because peripheral neuropathy reduces sensation, it’s sometimes hard to know if your feet are damp and cold. As soon as you get home from being outside in winter weather, remove your shoes and socks, dry your feet and put on a fresh pair of socks and warm slippers.
Wear sheepskin gloves and sheepskin slippers to bed to help keep hands and feet warm during a long, cold winter night.
Exercise regularly—indoors. Use a treadmill or stationary bicycle to exercise regularly. Regular aerobic exercise will improve your circulation, and core-strengthening exercises will help prevent falls. Helpful: Get an exercise prescription from a physical therapist.
• Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The number of COPD “exacerbations”—worsening symptoms such as breathlessness, requiring corticosteroids, antibiotics and/or hospitalization—double during winter, according to research published in European Respiratory Journal.
COPD sufferers take a hit for several reasons. For example, up to 70% of COPD exacerbations are triggered by bacterial or viral infections, which tend to peak in the winter. Low blood levels of vitamin D in wintertime may worsen the disease.
How to protect yourself from wintertime COPD exacerbations…
Wear a scarf or mask when outside in cold, dry air—and avoid exercising outside in excessively cold temperatures.
Wash your hands several times a day. It’s the number one way to minimize your risk for infections from a cold or flu virus. Use warm water and soap. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer is fine if you don’t have access to water.
Get a flu shot. Protection is a must if you have COPD, which makes you far more susceptible to the flu and pneumonia. You should also get vaccinated for pneumonia. Talk to your doctor about the appropriate vaccination schedule for you.
Boost your immunity. Load up on whole foods (phytochemicals in vegetables, fruits, beans and other whole foods strengthen the immune system)…and limit processed foods. Consider taking a multivitamin mineral supplement, with immune-strengthening vitamin C and zinc.
Take vitamin D. A team of international researchers found that daily or weekly supplementation with vitamin D was safe and significantly reduced respiratory infections in people with COPD. Daily doses in research have ranged from 300 IU to 4,000 IU daily. Consult your doctor for the dose that’s right for you.
Important: Cold, dry air can trigger asthma attacks, too. If you have a history of asthma, wear a mask or scarf when outdoors and avoid temperatures below 10°F when you’re active.