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Winter health and safety

December 23, 2014

SPRINGFIELD – Winter officially arrived on Dec. 21, and you know what that means – a host of wintertime ailments that can affect one’s physical and mental health, as well as your safety from slipping and falling on icy pavements.

The wintertime can be particularly challenging for those most vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the very young, and those with chronic illnesses. Here’s a look at five wintertime challenges that can pose a risk to your health and safety:

  1. Heart attacks – Heart attacks are more prevalent during the winter months, when cold weather can place a strain on your heart. “What happens is that your arteries tend to tighten when you are out in the cold, your blood pressure goes up, and this can overload your heart. This could lead to a heart attack. If you have previously suffered a heart attack or have heart disease, you should avoid shoveling snow and other types of outdoor exertion, particularly if you are out of shape and haven’t been exercising regularly. Let someone else do it, like a nephew or neighbor. And, be sure to bundle up when going out into the cold,” said Dr. Quinn Pack, a preventive cardiologist in the Baystate Heart & Vascular Program.

  2. Depression – The wintertime blues can be a real thing called “seasonal affective disorder (SAD).” Linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain brought about by shorter daylight hours and a lack of sunlight, it can occur during the colder months of fall and winter, when the days become shorter and there is less exposure to sunlight. Depression symptoms can include fatigue, sadness, social withdrawal, a craving for carbohydrates, weight gain, and a general lack of sunlight. “We do have effective treatments for SAD that may include light therapy, antidepressant medications, and psychotherapy. “The good news is that SAD usually disappears during the spring and summer months,” said Dr. Benjamin Liptzin, chair, Department of Psychiatry, Baystate Medical Center.
  3. Colds and flu – “While you can catch a cold anytime of the year, they appear to be more prevalent during the wintertime. One of the reasons why is that ‘we come in from the cold weather’ and are spending more time indoors closer to others who are coughing and sneezing and passing their germs to us,” said Dr. Eric Lao of Baystate Medical Practices – West Side Adult Medicine. While there is no cure for the common cold, you can treat its symptoms with Tylenol, Advil or Motrin, along with some over-the-counter cold and cough medicines, and drink plenty of liquids, noted Dr. Lao. “The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot and it’s not too late to get one now,” said Dr. Lao. He added that you can treat flu symptoms much as you would a cold, however, there are drugs called antivirals which can be prescribed to prevent serious complications and shorten the duration of the flu. For both colds and the flu, Dr. Lao said you can help prevent them from striking this winter by washing your hands regularly. The winter also comes with a whole host of other possible ailments. “There are sore throats, painful joins from arthritis, cold sores, and dry skin, to mention just a few,” said Dr. Lao.
  4. Alcohol and cold temperatures don’t mix – “Alcohol can seriously impair your judgment regardless of the season, and can make you very unsteady on your feet. In the winter, this can lead to serious injuries from slips and falls on the snow and ice,” said Dr. Ronald Gross, chief of Trauma, Acute Care Surgery and Surgical Critical Care, Baystate Medical Center. The Baystate trauma surgeon also noted that alcohol lowers your core body temperature, so your skin remains warm, leading to a false sense of security and putting you at greater risk for frostbite while outdoors in frigid temperatures. “The other thing that we see is people who are intoxicated ending up with bad hand injuries. This happens because they go out and operate snow blowers and forget that they should never try to unclog the machine while it is running. And, of course, you should never get behind the wheel and drive after drinking alcohol, whether it is an automobile or a snowmobile,” said Dr. Gross.
  5. Asthma – “The cold, dry air of winter can restrict airways and worsen a child’s breathing,” said Baystate Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. Matthew Sadof. He noted covering a child’s mouth and nose with a scarf or ski mask can help, as well as taking a preventative dose of a bronchodilating inhaler before venturing outdoors to play in the cold. “But, it’s not just the cold winter temperatures that can aggravate asthma in the winter. Kids are also indoors a lot and that means that they will be exposed more to indoor asthma triggers such as pet dander, dust mites and other triggers,” said Dr. Sadof, who works at Baystate High Street Health Center – Pediatrics.

“People are also less likely to exercise during the winter season. It’s very important to remain active, whether joining a gym or power walking in the warmth of a shopping mall,” he added.

For more information on Baystate Health, visit baystatehealth.org.