How Cold Weather Impacts Your Health
Do you eagerly await the first snowfall of the year? A blanket of snow covering the ground is beautiful to look at, but over time the cold temperatures that go along with winter can take their toll on you both physically and psychologically. What’s more, death rates tend to climb during the cold winter months. Let’s take a look at some of the ways cold weather can impact your health.
Kids and adults alike enjoy venturing out into the snow, but doing so without being adequately covered can result in a nasty case of frostbite. Frostbite is a condition where the skin and underlying tissues freeze; failure to warm the frozen area relatively quickly can cause tissue death, known as gangrene, often leading to the amputation of a toe or finger. Once the wind chill drops to negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit, you can sustain frostbite in as little as 10 minutes of cold exposure.
Even more serious is a sustained drop in body temperature due to cold exposure, also known as hypothermia. Human body temperature normally stays within a relatively narrow range, and a drop of as little as 2 or 3 degrees can slow the body down and cause symptoms such as debilitation and uncontrollable shivering. As body temperature drops further, you can experience confusion, slurred speech, and unusual levels of fatigue. Once your body temperature drops 8 or 9 degrees, it becomes unable to sustain life.
The take-home message? Know the temperature and wind chill levels before venturing outside and always dress appropriately. Wear layers of clothing and make sure your head and ears are covered. Feet and hands are vulnerable too, so wear an extra pair of sock and thick gloves or mittens.
Impact on Your Heart
Your heart has to work harder when it’s cold outside. When you step outdoors in frigid weather, your blood vessels clamp down to help your body hold heat. In response, your heart has to pump harder to push blood through the constricted vessels, causing a rise in blood pressure. If you engage in strenuous activity, like shoveling snow, it places substantial strain on your heart. The extra strain increases the risk of heart attack, especially if you have heart disease or uncontrolled high blood pressure. Plus, cold weather can worsen chest pain in people who have heart disease. Elderly people are at particularly high risk as they experience greater rises in blood pressure from cold exposure compared to younger people.
How to protect yourself? Don’t shovel snow without getting the okay from your doctor, especially if you have heart problems, diabetes, or high blood pressure. If you must clear your walks and driveway, dress as warmly as possible and take frequent breaks from the strenuous task of shoveling.
Your Immune System
Viruses that cause cold and flu typically make their rounds in the winter months. Why are these pesky infections more common when temperatures drop? You spend more time indoors during the cold months and are in closer contact with people, many of which are carrying viruses. Research also shows that cold temperatures suppress the immune response, your body’s main defense against pathogens like viruses and bacteria. Also, cold air entering your nasal passages can cripple the local immune response within your mucus membranes.
For some people, lack of exposure to sunlight may be a factor in the development of viruses. Your skin makes vitamin D from precursors on your skin, but it needs exposure to sunlight to do this. During the winter, vitamin D levels that are already marginally low can drop further due to lack of sunlight. Vitamin D is linked with healthy immune function, so when vitamin D levels drop, you may be at greater risk of catching the latest virus.
During the cold winter months, you probably feel more like lying on the couch than staying physically active. Winter is the time when exercise programs fall by the wayside. In some cases, those feelings of fatigue and lack of motivation are actually a case of the “winter blues.” In extreme cases, the winter blues might be seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of seasonal depression. Far from being uncommon, between 10% and 20% of the US population suffers from SAD. This syndrome is more common in people who live in Northern latitudes where there’s little direct sunlight during the winter.
What causes seasonal affective disorder? Your eyes are exposed to less light in the winter which can disrupt your body’s internal biological clock. This clock impacts everything from your hormones to the brain chemicals that affect your mood. Exposing your eyes to sunlight as much as possible may help the symptoms, so open the shades during the day and get outdoors as much as you can. Another option is to use a special light therapy box that mimics sunlight indoors. These are available online, but it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before purchasing one.
The Bottom Line
Cold weather can impact physical and mental well-being. So take care of yourself with a few common-sense precautions that will help you stay healthy until spring arrives.
This article is written by Kristie Leong M.D
Kristie Leong M.D. is a family physician. She and her husband, also a physician, offer helpful articles and tips for taking control of your health on their blog: healthylifestyledocs.com. Find out how to take control of your health through lifestyle.