6 ways to avoid winter health risks

General Wellness
Woman shoveling snow on walkway

Baby, it's cold outside! Just as with extreme heat in the summer, winter weather brings its own health risks. It doesn't even have to be extremely cold weather.

"This doesn't mean you should fear the outdoors from December until spring," says Fraulein Li, MD an internal medicine provider at Main Line Health. "Just be aware of winter health risks, and take appropriate precautions."

Some cold-weather health issues impact older adults and people with chronic conditions more than they do younger, healthier people. However, the majority of adults in the U.S. have at least one chronic disease — 6 out of 10 adults, in fact. And 55.8 million people in the U.S. are over age 65.

Here are six winter health risks to watch for in yourself or your loved ones. And if you have a chronic disease, take extra care and make sure you're listening to your body during extremely cold weather.

1. Are you getting enough vitamin D?

Worldwide, an estimated 1 billion people have vitamin D deficiency. It's most common among older adults, people with obesity and people who live in care facilities. Further, people with darker skin have a significantly higher prevalence of severe vitamin D deficiency — as much as 20-fold compared to the general population.

Vitamin D is crucial to human health. It not only primes the body to absorb calcium (preventing osteoporosis), but it also helps the immune system fight bacteria and viruses, transmits messages between your brain and body via your nerves and keeps your muscles moving.

The primary way people get vitamin D naturally is by absorbing it from the sun. In winter, not only is there less sun, but it's common to cover up more skin to keep warm. This doubling down creates the perfect storm for vitamin D deficiency.

Typically, you'd need to be outside for about two hours in the winter compared to 15 minutes in the summer to get adequate sun exposure. Since you're not likely to get this much sun in the winter, make sure you're incorporating vitamin D-rich foods, such as fish, egg yolks, dairy, fortified plant milks (almond, soy) and mushrooms. These all can be a good source of vitamin D into your diet. Also, talk with your doctor about whether taking a vitamin D supplement is safe for you.

2. Have you checked your furnace?

Winter is great for cozying up with a warm blanket and cup of tea. Light a fire or ignite a gas stove, and you risk releasing too much carbon monoxide into the air within a closed space. That's because these activities emit carbon monoxide, which can build up indoors when all of the windows and doors are closed. Some space heaters also produce carbon monoxide.

If you breathe in this colorless, odorless gas, it takes the place of oxygen in your blood.

"Within minutes, people can lose consciousness and even die as the brain, heart and other vital organs don't get the oxygen they need," says Dr. Li.

Watch for symptoms such as headache, dizziness and fatigue. If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, move to fresh air immediately, and call 911.

Make sure you're regularly checking smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to make sure they have working batteries and have not expired. If you're using a fireplace or gas stove, you might want to crack a window, and overall, exercise caution. And make sure to have your furnace checked by a professional at the start of each winter to make sure it's functioning properly.

3. Does breathing hurt?

Has breathing ever hurt when you step outside on a particularly cold day? That's because the cold, dry air irritates breathing passages by causing them to tighten. For people with respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or long COVID-19, this can be especially uncomfortable — or even dangerous.

The cold air may cause people with asthma to cough or wheeze. Take the warning signs seriously, because an asthma attack from cold weather can come on quickly.

Because research shows that COVID-19 can reduce how much air the lungs can hold and how well they function, people need to take care after an infection. When the lungs aren't functioning at their best, people are more prone to further illnesses, such as pneumonia and the flu.

Avoid going out on extremely cold days if you have a respiratory condition, and if you have to go, try wrapping a scarf around your mouth and nose as a shield from the cold air. Or better yet — wear an N95 or KN95 mask.

"Also, make sure you get your annual flu shot, a pneumococcal vaccine if you're eligible and your COVID-19 booster, if recommended by your PCP," says Dr. Li.

4. How's your blood sugar?

You probably don't associate blood sugar levels with cold weather. But because of how our body responds to cold, it also messes with blood sugar levels in people who have diabetes.

Check your blood sugar if you start to feel weak or dizzy, and avoid leaving your medications in the car so they don't freeze.

Keep in mind that many people with diabetes also have nerve damage in their extremities. This may keep them from feeling if their feet are getting too cold, putting them at greater risk for frostbite. In addition to keeping your insulin warm, make sure your feet and hands are bundled up.

5. Are you overexerting yourself?

Cold temperatures impact circulation, and those changes put a strain on the cardiovascular system, too. The heart works harder in extreme cold, increasing the risk of heart attacks.

When you're exposed to cold temperatures, the blood vessels in your skin and extremities narrow, enabling more blood to go to your torso, to keep most of your main organs working. However, this process also puts more pressure on the heart, which has to work harder to pump blood through the body.

"Take it easy in cold weather, particularly if you have a cardiovascular disease," says Dr. Li.

That includes avoiding shoveling, which adds even more strain on the heart due to heavy lifting. Yes, your sidewalk might need to be cleared, but that teenager down the street could also use some extra cash for taking on the job. Talk with your doctor to make sure you have no exercise limits before shoveling

6. Do you have non-slip footwear?

Speaking of clearing walkways, falls are another major health risk in winter. Iced over sidewalks or wet shoes on slick surfaces are both hazards. Adults over age 65 are not only at greater risk of falling, but also at greater risk for worse injuries — and longer recoveries.

If you're going to be out in potentially icy areas, add gripper sole covers to your outdoor shoes and an ice gripper to the bottom of your cane, if you use one. Hold on to rails when available, and above all, don't rush — take your time.

Even though there's a lot to be cautious about during the winter months, don't live in fear. Listen to your body, dress for the weather and enjoy the increased cozy time at home.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Fraulein Li, MD 
Learn more about primary care services at Main Line Health
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