Whether you love or hate the frigid weather, the darkest season brings its own set of health challenges. Here's what you need to know to stay healthy and happy when the mercury drops. By Jennifer Conrad, REDBOOK.
Heart attacks are more common
Fifty-three percent more so in winter, according to one large-scale study. "We're more likely to be out of shape. Then, when we take on strenuous activities, we are more likely to bear down and hold our breath," says American Heart Association spokesperson Tracy Stevens, MD. This makes us more prone to "popping plaque," a situation in which loose plaque in the arteries can lead to a heart attack. If you're planning to exercise outdoors or take on a task like shoveling snow, warm up first, dress appropriately, take frequent breaks, and don't drink alcohol right before or after breaking a sweat. Those with diabetes, a history of heart attacks, or other risk factors should be especially careful.
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Winter weather can do a number on your skin
"The biggest reason for dry skin in the winter is the lack of humidity in the air," which can leave even the healthiest skin parched and can worsen conditions like psoriasis, dandruff, and rosaceam says dermatologist D'Anne Kleinsmith, MD. To keep skin supple, stick to quick showers and avoid too-hot water, which can strip away oil. Baths are generally more drying, especially those with bubbles. Immediately after bathing, use a moisturizer infused with gently exfoliating alpha-hydroxy acids. (Follow with sunscreen, since those can increase sun-sensitivity.) For extra-dry spots like chapped lips, Dr. Kleinsmith suggests applying one percent hydrocortisone ointment at bedtime.
Cold and flu bugs proliferate
It's an annual tradition: when the temperature drops, the number of cold and flu cases spikes. The latest research suggests that's because the viruses thrive in colder temperatures. If you do find yourself stricken, try these strategies to feel better fast: wash your hands often; treat a sore throat by gargling with salt water; hydrate with water, juice, and herbal tea; and sip chicken soup, which is thought to be an anti-inflammatory - plus, drinking a warm soothing soup can help clear your sinuses, at least temporarily. There's some evidence that zinc lozenges, if taken within the first 24 hours that symptoms appear, can lessen the length and severity of colds, but check with your doctor before using them since the drops can interact poorly with some medications, including antibiotics.
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Cold air can trigger asthma attacks
Experts believe it may have something to do with the dryness of the air, but asthma attacks are more common in winter. The cold or flu can also irritate the lungs and worsen asthma. Your best bet? Drink plenty of fluids and if you need to take a cold medicine, check with your doctor first since some can dry out the airways. Be extra vigilant about taking your regular meds, and be sure to have emergency medicine on hand.
The winter blues creep in
Seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that sets in at a certain time of year, most commonly pops up during the winter when the prevalence increases to as much as 10 percent of the population. The most severe cases may require antidepressants or talk therapy, while other sufferers manage their symptoms through a healthy diet, exercise, good sleep, and exposure to sunlight, especially in the morning. Light therapy involves exposure to a special sun-stimulating very bright light for about half an hour a day. On the more experimental front, Finish researchers are experimenting with exposing patients to bright-light therapy via their ear canals. And some studies have suggested that machines emitting negative ions - which are more prevalent in the air near the sea or after a storm - can help lessen symptoms either in combination with or instead of light therapy. Another reason to book a seaside vacation!
You don't get your dose of Ds
You get vitamin D through fortified dairy products, cereal, eggs, and fatty fish like salmon, but your body also relies on sunshine to create the vital nutrient. People who live in the northern part of the country - or those who prefer to stay indoors - often don't get enough sunlight to create the adequate amounts of vitamin D, especially in the winter. Skimping on your daily D can lead to a deficiency, which puts you at increased risk for conditions including osteoporosis, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. What's more, some studies suggest that expectant mothers who don't get enough vitamin D are at a higher risk of having children who develop multiple sclerosis. If you suspect you're not making the vitamin D you need from exposure to sunlight, look into dietary sources and consider taking a supplement.
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Shorter days can mess with your sleep cycle
"Light has powerful effects on alertness, vitality, and performance," explains Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "Less light makes you more sluggish and less active, which can negatively affect sleep quality and duration." You can compensate for winter's toll on your Zs by keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule, making sure you get enough exposure to sunlight, exercising regularly, skipping large meals after 8 p.m., and taking a warm bath about two hours before bedtime. If you have trouble dozing off at a reasonable hour, Dr. Lee suggests taking melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles.
You're more likely to get injured
You already know the risks of icy sidewalks, but you may not know that other sprains and strains are also more common in colder temperatures. In a study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, researchers tracked ER visits for snow-shoveling injuries for 17 years, finding that an average of 11,500 people a year end up in the emergency room for injuries related to shoveling the white stuff. Whether you're exercising or working outdoors, be sure to warm up first, and be careful not to overdo it.
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