Welcome to winter, a season notoriously hard on bodies and minds. Ailments from heart attacks to flu are more common; more people complain of sore joints and itchy skin; and many suffer from seasonal depression.
Here’s what to watch for and how to protect yourself in these darkest days of the year.
More people die of heart attacks, strokes and heart failure in winter than in other seasons, research shows. One theory is that the drop in temperatures, even in milder areas, causes blood vessels to constrict. Another is that people are less active in winter — and then when they are active outside, they may overexert themselves in the cold. That’s why shoveling snow can be “a perfect storm for heart attack and stroke to occur,” says Rani Whitfield, a family practitioner in Baton Rouge, La., and an American Heart Association spokesman.
A bout of flu can also strain the heart, and misuse of over-the-counter cold and flu medications can raise blood pressure, he says.
Here’s what to do: Get a flu shot, and if you have heart disease, keep taking your prescribed medicine and tracking your blood pressure. If you have symptoms of a possible heart attack or stroke, call 911, Whitfield says. “Your life is the best present you can give your loved ones.”
Many people have the so-called “winter blues.” They sleep more, drag a bit and eat worse. But a smaller group suffers from a form of major depression that can start in the fall and last until spring. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a serious illness but can be treated with medication and psychotherapy, says psychologist Kelly Rohan, a professor at the University of Vermont. Another common treatment is light therapy — sitting in front of a bright light for a little while each day, she says.
While people with SAD can be just as impaired as people with other forms of depression, they are less likely to have suicidal thoughts, Rohan says. That may be because they know there is a “light at the end of the tunnel” in the spring, she says. For people with other forms of depression, suicides actually peak in the spring, she says.
Here’s what to do if you are prone to SAD: Seek professional treatment. If you have milder “winter blues,” try taking a walk outside each morning. The bright light will help keep your body rhythms in sync.
Achy muscles and joints
There’s no conclusive science showing that aches and pains get worse in cold or wet weather, says Robert Jamison, a clinical psychologist specializing in pain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. But people with chronic pain do report more distress in the cold and damp, and Jamison says he believes them.
“There’s a lot of speculation about what the causes might be,” he says. Possible culprits include changes in barometric pressure and humidity. Inactivity and physical responses to cold — the hunching and tightening of muscles — probably contribute too, he says.
What to do: “Unfortunately, we can’t control the weather,” Jamison says. And studies show that moving to warmer, drier climates is not a solution. “Our bodies tend to adjust,” he says. So use heating pads and over-the-counter painkillers as needed and try to stay physically active, he says. It’s also important, he says, “to keep your mind occupied and not focused on the pain.”
Dry, itchy skin
Drier indoor and outdoor air means drier skin. And it’s not just a cosmetic issue: Dried, cracked skin can become itchy, painful and even infected, says Elizabeth Tanzi, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist. “Hands, in particular, take a beating,” she says.
Among her tips: Avoid hot showers (which may feel great, but strip natural oils from the skin) and use moisturizer as soon as you get out of the shower. Put a humidifier in your bedroom. The American Academy of Dermatology has more tips at aad.org.
Colds and flu
Viruses that cause colds and flu are around all year. But for reasons that are not fully understood, some viruses — including flu viruses — spread more widely in winter, says Jeff Duchin, a professor of allergy and infectious disease at the University of Washington. One theory is that droplets of flu virus survive longer in dry air. Indoor crowding, especially in schools, may also play a role, Duchin says.
What you can do: Get a flu shot, even when it’s not a perfect match for the most common flu strains, as is the case this year. Also, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Finally, stay clear of sick people — and be kind enough to stay away from others when you are sick.