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The Health Risks of Winter

Brace yourselves, winter is upon us! And with it’s inevitable drop in temperature comes an increase in risks to your health. In regions that experience proper seasonal weather (not you Sweden, or conversely Jamaica) there are typically twice as many deaths in winter as in summer. In the UK, for every degree the temperature drops below 18C, the death rate rises by 1.5%, and there were an estimated excess of 25,700 deaths during winter in the UK in 2010/11. America similarly had an excess of 95,000 deaths over the winter months compared with the rest of the year. The majority of these deaths are of seniors over 65, so old people, wrap yourselves up warm and be careful. Most deaths during this time (some 70%) are due to icy roads causing traffic accidents, but lets look at some of the health risks that come with mean ol’ Jack Frost.

Flu/Cold

The winter flu is renowned. Any teachers will be well aware that there is a correlation between temperatures dropping and masses of students disappearing for days at a time for “fluids and rest” or else sitting in the corner of the classroom snivelling every few minutes with that familiar sore red patch under their noses. But why does the flu arrive en masse during winter?

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More than 100 viruses can cause colds. A drop in temperature increases your susceptibility to these viruses compared with regular weather. You’re especially susceptible in winter if you are already suffering from health problems or if you’re old due to a generally weakened immune system. The severity of common illnesses is increased significantly by the cold. Those in a weakened state in winter who catch a cold are at a much higher risk of developing pneumonia which increases the risk of death, which isn’t so cheery and festive.

Colds/Flu can be recognised by several symptoms, but if you don’t know them through first hand experience yet, you’re either far too young to be on the computer by yourself, or have literally been living in a giant bubble, because the common cold is exactly what it claims to be – common. Symptoms include; runny nose, headache, abrupt onset fever, fatigue, body aches, general weakness, a dry cough and a sore throat.

If you should contract the winter flu, and you probably will at some stage, you can consult a doctor for medication, but this isn’t really necessary unless your cold is severe and prolonged. Mostly you can cure the flu with rest, lots of fluids (specifically fruit juices) and terrible day time TV. If you have the luxury of your mum/spouse bringing you soup and beans on toast whilst you wrap up on the sofa, this too will help.

Hypothermia

Higher on the list of things that you should try and avoid contracting over winter is hypothermia. In the US, over 700 deaths a year are attributed to hypothermia and no prizes for guessing which season these deaths occur in; yup, winter. Cold, miserable winter. Hypothermia occurs when your core body temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius  (That’s 95 degrees F for our non-metric friends). The normal body temperature of an average human being is 37 degrees C or 98.6 degrees F. Just a 2 degree difference in body temperature can have devastating effects to the human body and it should be obvious that we’re far more susceptible to a drop in body temperature during winter.

Hypothermia occurs when you lose heat from your skin through convection, conduction, radiation and evaporation. As temperatures drop, the body will shiver to try and maintain a steady body temperature, but if it is unable to adequately raise the temperature compared to the rate of temperature loss, then you are at risk of hypothermia. The elderly are once again, more susceptible to suffering from hypothermia due to their lesser ability to regulate body heat, and to judge accurately whether they are too cold or hot. Other factors that can affect your risk for hypothermia include being in wet clothes in the cold, and being mentally impaired through substance abuse (drunk).

You can tell if someone has contracted hypothermia if they are forgetful, drowsy, have slurred speech or if their appearance changes to give them a puffy face (this is just sounding like a drunk person so far.) If they demonstrate a weak pulse, slow heartbeat, or slow and shallow breathing, these also indicate a potential onset of hypothermia. Severe hypothermia is indicated by persistent dilated pupils, no obvious pulse or breathing, and blue skin; basically, if they look like a corpse or a comatose smurf then call a doctor!

The treatment for hypothermia depends on the severity of the individual’s condition. If it is not so severe, make sure to take off all their wet constrictive clothing, dry them and give them new clothing to maintain warmth. They can also do some activities to heat themselves up, and drink water or eat food containing carbohydrates, proteins and fats. There are other obvious ways to heat up, like sitting next to a source of heat, or having a bit of a cuddle. If the hypothermia appears severe, then a doctor will wrap them up like a human burrito in a hypothermia blanket, making sure to heat up the vital organs. For maximum efficiency when heating, aim for the body’s main arteries; the brachial artery in the armpit, the carotid in the neck, the femoral in the groin and the arterial in the palms.
Sufferers of severe hypothermia have trouble digesting, and so can only drink warm water, preferably with sugar dissolved in it. Oddly enough, urinating will also help to heat up someone with severe hypothermia, as the body’s heat sources that were used to warm up the kidneys and urine can be used instead to heat up vital organs.

To prevent having to worry about hypothermia in the first place, make sure to change out of wet clothes in winter as soon as possible, and dry yourself thoroughly. Don’t get drunk as this disables the body’s ability to tell when it is cold. Make sure your heating is on at a comfortable and sufficient level. Be cautious when going outside, and if you think you’re particularly susceptible to pneumonia then stay inside and wrap up warm.

Heart Attack

So, not only is this season cold and miserable, wet and windy, but it turns out there’s also a greatly increased chance of having a heart attack and dying. Thanks winter. The chance of having a heart attack significantly increases by 50% in winter. This is generally caused by increased blood pressure due to the contracting of blood vessels in the cold, forcing the heart to pump blood through them with greater force which can result in damage. Blood also changes composition in the cold, making it more likely to clot and block a major artery or permanently damage the heart.

Assessing the heart attack statistics during winter, it seems again that the elderly and those with health problems are most likely to suffer. Maybe the elderly should just adopt a winter hibernation; stay inside and sleep, catch up on your soaps and read a magazine or something, because mother nature is clearly trying to kill you.

Ways to tell if you’re having a heart attack include: pain in your heart and/or chest! Especially if this pain is intense, prolonged, and accompanied by collapsing on the floor clutching your chest.
Also to be expected: Pain in your left arm, discomfort, pressure or heaviness in the chest, discomfort in your back, jaw, throat or arm, a feeling of fullness, choking, sweating, nausea, vomiting and dizziness, general weakness, anxiety, shortness of breath or rapid irregular heartbeats for over 30 minutes.

Recent studies have suggested that taking one aspirin a day can significantly reduce the chance of having a heart attack. If however you do have a heart attack, or exhibit the symptoms of having one, an aspirin isn’t going to do the trick so call an ambulance, those things are serious! Doctors can either prescribe drugs to help with thinning your blood and breaking up clots, or alternatively can pursue surgical options.

S.A.D

Possibly one of the most inappropriately funny acronyms created for a winter disorder is S.A.D, standing for seasonal affective disorder – a type of depression. So if you’re depressed during winter, you may be suffering from SAD (come on!).

SAD mostly occurs to people in places that aren’t used to cold weather during the non-winter months and so are especially susceptible to the changes in temperature and weather suffered during winter, so we’re looking at California over Canada here. The disorder can be attributed to a lack of vitamin D. Vitamin D is gained from exposure to sunlight, which is distinctly lacking in the winter, and is vital for production of melatonin and serotonin in the body.  Serotonin is a brain chemical responsible for making us happy, so with a lack of serotonin in our system it’s no wonder we think the winter is miserable – bah humbug! A further reason winter causes SAD is that the lack of sunlight means can change our circadian rhythm leading to irregular sleep patterns and bad moods all round. Melatonin is the natural hormone produced by our bodies to aid with sleep so with less hours of daylight during winter, we produce less melatonin and therefore feel more tired and more depressed.

While it is funny naming a form of depression SAD, depression itself is not a laughing matter. If you feel genuinely down during winter, and it’s not just because you can’t go to the beach or you have no one to cuddle under the blankets with by a toasty fire, then consider talking to your doctor. Other signs of SAD include sadness, fatigue, social withdrawal, trouble concentrating, slow movement, stress, a craving of carbohydrates and weight gain – which is not going to be helped by the mounds of chocolate typically consumed during Christmas.

To prevent getting SAD (seriously, they need a better name for this disorder) come wintertime, you can try looking on the bright side of life, living nearer the equator, or going on holiday to Australia (that crazy lot have summer weather during wintertime). Alternatively, if that seems infeasible, there are alternative therapies available. Light therapy, for example, is where you sit next to, or below a light box that supposedly boosts your vitamin D, serotonin, and hopefully your mood. More conventional therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and antidepressants will also help with SAD, as these are standard treatments for normal depression.

Slipping on Ice

As if winter wasn’t hazardous enough to your health, a final caution this winter is to be careful about slipping on ice. Turns out that winter equals more snow and ice (in some regions, curse you Jamaica!) and ice is slippery. This winter hazard claims several lives each year including famously Dr. Atkins of diet-inventing fame, and Natasha Richardson the actress, married to Liam Neeson.Doctors in seasonal regions claim that during winter, twice as many patients than normal are admitted with injuries from falling.

The injuries sustained from slipping on ice can include broken wrists, legs, arms; cracked ribs, concussions and other head wounds. If you sustain a head wound please seek medical help even if you think you’re fine. Knocks to the head can result in a haematoma and possibly death if left untreated. The only way to try and prevent slipping on ice is staying indoors, or being careful when you’re outside.

Speaking of being careful, if it wasn’t enough to look out for ice on the ground, a final tip is to be aware of walking under icicles as well. These frozen water missiles cause severe damage to a surprising amount of people each winter.

There are several apparent reasons why we should adopt bears tactics and hibernate during this dastardly cold season. Nature is out to get us. Winter deaths are on the decline because of better heating capabilities, insulation, and greater access to warm clothing. The number of deaths occurring in winter compared to summer should continue to go down as technology and more widespread heating capabilities keep people insulated and safe, but this is not necessarily true with icy roads, and a present recession meaning people are less likely to use heating, or get it fixed. Studies show that an increase in fuel prices equals more deaths in winter from not being able to pay for prolonged heating. Please take caution in this winter season, it is not just filled with festive cheer, but miserable, health hazardous weather.

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