Written by Matthew A. Piacentini Friday, 18 February 2011 00:00
Winter can be fun and it can also provide some challenges. This year, we have all seen how severe weather can make life a little more inconvenient, but it can also be dangerous. Throughout these cold months, we need to think about everything from frostbite, hypothermia and injuries from over-exertion to arthritis, heart issues and even mental health.
But, if you take the right precautions, it is possible to live well all winter long, feeling good and staying healthy.
For starters, to keep your immune system up, the Department of Health recommends you dress in multiple layers to stay warm, including a hat, scarf and gloves and be sure to stay dry to prevent body heat loss. If you are shivering, go indoors immediately and keep aware of the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite.
Hypothermia - Feelings of confusion, drowsiness, disorientation and exhaustion. Victims of hypothermia are often: (1) elderly people with inadequate food, clothing, or heating; (2) babies sleeping in cold bedrooms; (3) people who remain outdoors for long periods—the homeless, hikers, hunters, etc.; and (4) people who drink alcohol or use illicit drugs.
In addition, people with certain illnesses or people who take certain medications put them at higher risk for hypothermia. These include:
• Anyone with thyroid or hormone system disorders
• Anyone who has had a stroke or has a medical condition that causes paralysis and reduced awareness
• Anyone with severe arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or other medical consitions that limit physical activity
• Anyone with a medical condition that slows the normal flow of blood.
• Anyone with memory disorders;
• Anyone who takes medications to treat anxiety, depression, nausea or uses some over-the-counter cold remedies.
Frost Bite - An injury to your body caused by freezing. The symptoms of frostbite are loss of feeling and loss of color, and it usually happens on the nose, ears, cheeks, chin fingers or toes. Frostbite can cause permanent physical damage and in extreme cases, can lead to amputation. People with circulation problems or people who are not dressed properly for cold temperatures are more likely to suffer from frostbite. Symptons are tingling and numbness, white grayish areas of skin, skin that feels waxy.
To prevent both of these, it is important to closely monitor young children playing outside. You should try to check on family and neighbors who are at risk for cold related injuries including the elderly and those with illnesses. It is also important to keep pets inside.
For everything from simply staying fit, to preventing cold-related illnesses, and even aiding arthritis, it is important to stay active.
The Arthritis Foundation actually recommends regular physical activity, such as walking, as an important way to manage the pain and stiffness of arthritis through the winter months. The cold weather can make arthritis more noticeable.
“Physical activity is a simple, inexpensive pain relief option for most people suffering from arthritis,” said Patience White, M.D., chief public health officer for the Arthritis Foundation. “Walking just 10 minutes, three times a day can ease joint pain, improve mobility and reduce fatigue often associated with arthritis.”
In addition to easing the pain of arthritis, physical activity can also help avoid weight gain, another common problem during winter months. With holiday events and celebrations, many Americans overeat. The lack of activity and improper diet lead to other common problems like obesity.
“The prevalence of obesity continues to rise, even though it can often be prevented by staying active through simple activities such as walking,” said White. “A weight loss of 15 pounds can decrease the pain due to osteoarthritis by 50 percent.”
Another health concern in winter can be depression. According to Mental Health America, the country’s leading mental health non-profit, some people suffer from symptoms of depression during the winter, with symptoms getting better in the spring and summer. These symptoms may be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression and related to seasonal variations of light. SAD affects half a million people every winter between September and April, peaking in December, January, and February.
The organization shares some key facts:
• 75 percent of those with SAD are female
• The age of onset of SAD is usually between 18 and 30
• The severity of SAD depends both on your vulnerability to the disorder and how much daylight you get where you live
According to Mental Health America, if you have had three winters in a row with the following symptoms, you might have SAD:
• Depression: misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, despair, and apathy
• Anxiety: tension and inability to tolerate stress
• Mood changes: extremes of mood and, in some, periods of mania in spring and summer
• Sleep problems: desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or, sometimes, disturbed sleep and early morning waking
• Lethargy: feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine
• Overeating: craving for starchy and sweet foods resulting in weight gain
• Social problems: irritability and desire to avoid social contact
• Sexual problems: loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact
Once diagnosed with SAD you could be treated with either phototherapy or antidepressants.
The American Heart Association provides several tips on heart health throughout the winter.
First, always read the labels on all over-the-counter medications, especially if you have blood pressure of 120/80 mm Hg or greater. Look for warnings to those with high blood pressure and to those who take blood pressure medications. Better yet, if you have high blood pressure and certainly if you are on prescription medication, consult your healthcare professional before taking any over-the-counter medications or supplements.
People with high blood pressure should be aware that the use of decongestants may raise blood pressure or interfere with the effectiveness of some prescribed blood pressure medications. Many over-the-counter cold and flu preparations contain decongestants such as:
Some OTCs are also high in sodium, which can raise blood pressure as well. Look at the active and inactive ingredients lists for words like “sodium” or “soda.” Note the amount of sodium in the medication. People with high blood pressure should consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day from all sources; one dose of some OTCs can contain more than a whole day’s allowance.