Cold weather has come around again, and with it come the viruses that cause cold and flu. But respiratory complaints aren’t the only health problems you have to watch out for at this time of year. Cold weather brings a number of other health concerns ranging from heart attack and stroke to frostbite, hypothermia, and vitamin D deficiency.
Fortunately, many winter health problems can be prevented, and even when they can’t, you can still be prepared. Let’s take a look at some of the health problems you need to be on the lookout for this winter.
Stroke and Heart Attack
The winter heart attack brought on by shoveling snow is so common, it’s a cliché. It’s true that the winter months bring with them a 53 percent increase in heart attacks and other problems related to atherosclerosis, like stroke, but it’s not overexertion alone that’s the culprit.
Cold temperatures case your arteries to constrict. If atherosclerosis has already narrowed your arteries, then this further constriction just makes the situation that much worse. Not only does it force your heart to work harder and harder in order to pump blood through your even narrower arteries, but the constriction can knock pieces of arterial plaque lose from your artery walls. That causes blood clots to form, leading to increased risk of heart attack or stroke that the winter months are known for.
The mercury doesn’t need to fall that much to make a difference. According to British researchers, a decrease of just two degrees Fahrenheit in a single day can add up to a two percent increase in the number of heart attacks over the two weeks following that day. The researchers, who compared temperature records with 84,000 hospital admissions over a three-year period, found that hospitals in England and Wales treated around 200 more heart attacks per day when the temperature was colder.
And the older you get, the more vulnerable you are to weather-related heart attack and stroke. That’s because age makes it increasingly hard for your body to self-regulate your temperature. So if you’re older than age 50, or have a history of heart attacks or atherosclerosis, ask your doctor about using a medication like Lovenox or Plavix to prevent blood clots during the winter months. You can also prevent winter heart attacks and strokes by staying in when it’s extremely cold, sleeping a little later than usual, dressing warmly when you go out, and taking it easy with any New Year’s exercise resolutions.
Hypothermia and Frostbite
Frostbite occurs when cold winter temperatures freeze areas of your skin and underlying tissues. It’s common in the extremities and in places that are typically exposed to the winter air, like your nose, cheeks, fingers, chin, ears, or toes.
The initial symptoms of frostbite include numbness and discoloration of the skin that can range from red to blotchy white, bluish-white, or grayish-yellow. Frostbite will initially be painful, but as the damage becomes more severe, numbness sets in. When allowed to go too far, frostbite can cause permanent damage and even require amputation.
If you experience mild frostbite symptoms, warm the area up by soaking it in lukewarm water until it the area ceases to be painful and feels warm again. If the area turns black or blisters when lukewarm water is applied, seek emergency medical attention.
Hypothermia is another winter danger that can be life-threatening. It happens when your internal body temperature drops below 95 degrees, usually due to over-exposure to cold temperatures. While hypothermia is possible anytime temperatures are low enough to cause body temperature to drop below 95 degrees, it’s most common in winter, when temperatures regularly drop below 45 degrees.
Alcohol consumption raises your risk of hypothermia, because it can give you the illusion of feeling warm even though your body temperature may be dropping dangerously. Elderly people and babies are also at an increased risk of hypothermia, because their bodies are not as efficient at temperature regulation. Hypothermia is a medical emergency; know the early symptoms of hypothermia so you can get medical attention as soon as possible after symptoms set it. If you wait, you may quickly become incapable of getting yourself help.
Vitamin D Deficiency
It’s easy to develop a vitamin D deficiency during winter because there’s so little sunlight and many people try to avoid going outdoors during the colder months anyway. But your body needs vitamin D for proper muscle function, bone health, cardiovascular support, brain health, and more. According to U.S. News & World Report, people who live further north than the city of Atlanta can’t get enough wintertime sun to produce adequate vitamin D no matter how hard they try, because the UVB rays responsible for vitamin D production don’t penetrate the atmosphere at those latitudes during the winter. You may want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter if you live in the northern part of the country, especially if you don’t get out much during the summer.
Winter time is here again, and the cold weather brings its own set of health problems to watch out for. Educate yourself about wintertime health hazards, and how to prevent them, so you and your family can enjoy all that winter has to offer, while still staying safe.