By Jack Galbraith, M.D.
Family Medicine Specialist
St. Anthony’s Medical Center
We’ve all heard the annual dire warnings regarding shoveling snow: heart attacks . . . strokes . . . broken bones from falls on slippery pavement. The truth is that cold weather alone – even without the rigors of snow shoveling – can be hazardous to your health.
Heart attacks and strokes occur more frequently during cold weather, due to arteries responding to cold by constricting. Narrowed arteries cut down on the flow of blood through the body, forcing the heart to work harder and making us more prone to heart attacks. Constricting arteries also can cause splits in the plaque lining their walls, allowing blood clots to form and trigger strokes. Cold-weather constriction of the arteries also may increase blood pressure.
Colds, flu and lung problems also are more prevalent in winter. Each year, adults contract about three colds and one in five adults gets the flu. One study suggests that cold temperatures can limit the supply of infection-fighting white blood cells in the nasal passages, where most cold viruses enter the body. Also, the flu virus is more stable and stays in the air longer when air is cold and dry. Cold weather tends to worsen respiratory problems, like asthma and emphysema, as cold air narrows airways, restricting airflow into and out of the lungs. The risk of pneumonia also increases.
Two more obvious dangers resulting from cold temperatures are hypothermia and frostbite. About 700 deaths occur in the U.S. each year, due to hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees and the body reroutes blood to the brain and internal organs. Symptoms include pale skin, puffy face, impaired thinking, shivering to keep warm, unusually stiff neck, arm and leg muscles, poor coordination and jerky movements, slowed breathing and heart rate and cool or cold skin. It can be fatal if symptoms are not recognized and treated. Frostbite can cause a loss of feeling and color in the affected areas and can permanently damage body tissue. Signs of frostbite include reduced blood flow to hands and feet (fingers or toes can freeze), causing numbness, tingling or stinging; aching; and bluish or pale, waxy skin.
Less serious but more common winter ailments are depression and vitamin D deficiency. About five percent of Americans, three-fourths of them women, experience winter-related depression. Symptoms include sadness, fatigue, excessive sleepiness, social withdrawal and trouble concentrating. Getting too little sunlight can trigger a deficiency of vitamin D, which primarily is absorbed through the skin. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis, heart attacks, strokes, dementia, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Here are some tips to help you stay safe and healthy during the cold winter days:
- DON’T shovel snow if you don’t have to. If you do shovel, work slowly and don’t overdo it; remove only small amounts at a time and take frequent breaks indoors. Wear warm, well-fitting boots with heavily treaded sole for good traction and balance.
- Be sure to get your flu vaccination every year to lessen your chances of contracting flu. There is no cure for a cold, but taking cold medicines may help lessen your symptoms while your body fights off the virus.
- When it’s frigid outside, postpone outdoor activities and exercise indoors. Regular physical activity is good for cardiovascular health, can improve lung function and helps ward off depression; but moderation is key. Talk to your doctor before starting any exercise regimen.
- When you do go outdoors in cold weather, dress warmly, especially if you have high blood pressure. Wear several thin, insulated layers of clothing with a wind-breaking outer layer. Always wear a hat or scarf, and mittens keep hands warmer than gloves.
- If you are shivering or uncomfortable indoors, add more layers of clothing, turn up the heat or find a warm place to “thaw out.”
- Soak up the sunshine outdoors when you can, and ask your doctor if taking a vitamin D supplement is advisable for you.
- If you or someone you’re with exhibits signs of hypothermia or frostbite, call an ambulance. Remove the person from the cold, remove any wet clothing and insulate the victim with covers. Do not try hot baths or electric blankets or give the victim any food or drink.
Remember, cold hits us harder as we age, especially when the temperature drops below freezing. Older adults often have poor circulation, less body fat and muscle and less ability to generate heat, so they feel the cold more severely. Additionally, about 10 percent of people older than 65 have a temperature-regulating defect, making them more susceptible to the effects of cold.
While winter can pose additional dangers to those with existing health problems, a little extra caution can ward off cold-weather hazards. And the best part is, spring is only a couple of months away.
Dr. Jack Galbraith, a Family Medicine specialist, is a member of St. Anthony’s Physician Organization. He practices at St. Anthony’s Family Health Partners, at 59 Grasso Plaza, in Affton. Call 314-543-5258 for an appointment. For a referral to any St. Anthony’s physician, call 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 1-800-554-9550 or visit http://www.stanthonysmedcenter.com/sapo/safhp.asp.