Winter's icy touch and your health

Even a slight drop in temperature can trigger Raynaud's phenomenon, a circulatory problem that affects about one in 20 people. Fingers, toes and ears get numb and throb with pain, as skin may change to white, red and then blue as it is exposed to cold. Managing stress and dressing warmly can help to prevent these episodes.

Cold, dry weather--both indoors or outdoors--can leave skin chapped and itchy, so keeping skin well-moisturized is especially important. And, or course, the common cold is much more common this time of year, although the weather has little to do with it. Instead, the increased incidence is a result of people spending more time indoors, increasing the chances that any of the 200 different viruses that can trigger a cold will spread from person to person.

Influenza is the most feared of wintertime respiratory viruses and can cause serious illness especially in the elderly and those with chronic diseases. We don't know why, but influenza occurs in winter months in the Northern Hemisphere and circulates in the Southern Hemisphere during our summers (and their winters).

Immunization can protect against serious influenza, and anyone can be vaccinated unless there is a serious allergy to eggs or prior flu shots.

When the weather turns especially nasty, being prepared can make all the difference in how you withstand the winter.

Dress for Health

Dressing in layers is the best way to ward off the chills. Layers help trap heat and allow you to remove clothes as you work up a sweat. The inner layer should be a synthetic fabric like polypropylene or natural silk, which whisks perspiration from you skin; since cotton absorbs sweat, it's not advised for your inner layer. A wool sweater or shirt is a good middle layer, because it helps trap body heat. And the outer layer should help protect you against the elements and let sweat evaporate, so choose a water-proof jacket or windbreaker that "breathes." Fiber-pile is also good, since it contains thousands of tiny air pockets to trap warm air and keep you comfortable for hours.

Should you get stranded, it's also a good idea to keep a change of warm, dry clothes, a warm blanket, gloves or mittens, as well as a wool hat and socks in your car. Walking on ice. Slow and steady wins this race, especially if you're aging and more at risk for fractures.

Shoveling Snow

Heart attacks may be triggered by shoveling snow, especially if it's of the wet, heavy variety. Researchers point to several factors that usually put excess strain on your heart: working in an upright posture when legs are motionless; static exertion; and exposure to cold air. So before tackling the sidewalk, warm up arm and leg muscles with some light exercise and be sure to dress accordingly (including wearing a scarf around your mouth if necessary). When you shovel, be sure to take frequent breaks by walking around to keep your legs moving. Also, bend at the knees to prevent back pain and upper body strain. Or better yet, use a snow blower.

Breathe Easier Indoors

It's no coincidence that upper respiratory infections increase during the winter. Besides colds, flu and other viruses, breathing infectious bacteria, mold and any of the 200 different contaminants in the average household--from formaldehyde in plywood to carbon dioxide from kitchen appliances can be hazordous to your health. The definition of "being homesick" takes a whole new meaning. While you can't open the windows for better circulation, you can offset some of this exposure with houseplants, such as philodendron, palms and ferns, which absorb some of these airborne toxins as food. Increasing humidity with a pot of water on a wood stove or hear heating sources can also prevent the nose and tonsils from drying out, which reduces their efficiency at trapping germs.

Sick Building Syndrome is a controversial illness that has been said to cause headache, nausea and dizziness with throat and eye irritations. However, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause identical symptoms and also can kill, so if there is a potential source of the gas, such as a furnace, water heater or cars warming in your garage, levels can be monitored with a device available in most hardware stores.

Copyright The Johns Hopkins University, 1997. All rights reserved.

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