Cold Weather Is an Inconvenience, but Is It a Health Risk?

Winter can hurt you, but protecting your health is simple.

Posted Jan 29, 2016

True, it came late this year.  But it came with a vengeance.  Freezing weather hit the Northeast, the Southeast, and the Midwest.  With it came traffic jams, school closures, and the cancellation of thousands of flights.  But what does cold weather really mean for your health?  After all, we were all told as children (or now tell our children) that being out in cold weather puts us at risk for catching cold or the flu.  And that leaving the warmth of home or office risks frostbite.  So what’s the truth about cold weather health risks to ourselves and our families, and what can we do to protect ourselves from illness, both minor and major, during these freezing months?

Practically everyone seems to recall catching the cold or flu during winter.  In fact, there is some evidence that dry winter air may truly alter the resiliency of some viruses.  That is, the outer coating of some viruses may harden in the colder winter temperatures, increasing the bugs’ viability.  That said, the main reason that so many of us catch a cold or get the flu at this time of year likely has less to do with the strength of microscopic infectious agents than it does with human behavior.  Freezing winds and constant chill drive humans indoors more frequently and for much longer periods of time.  Unlike spring or summer, we tend to spend a much greater percentage of our awake hours inside our homes and places of employment.  We don’t walk outside, eat our lunch indoors, and take our breaks within our heated structures. Many of our crowded workplaces have limited or poor ventilation.  We’re frequently trapped in the same space with a colleague who is sick with the cold or flu.  And the constant central heating that blasts through our homes and offices doesn’t help, drying out the mucous membranes lining the inside of our noses (the first line of defense in capturing infectious viruses floating through the air).

By recognizing these winter-associated cold and flu risks, you can easily protect yourself from a week or two of sneezing, sore throat, and coughing.  First of all, wash your hands frequently.  Plain soap and water is best, but if these are not available, sanitizing gels are acceptable (understand that not all viruses are 100% susceptible to these gels).  Next, try to limit how often you touch your nose, mouth, and eyes with your hands (you’d be amazed if your counted the number of times a day that you do so without thinking), as this is a common route of infection.  Finally, it should go without saying that you should avoid close association with any co-worker, friend, or family member who seems to be suffering from a cold or the flu.  (And please, if you’re sick, don’t go to work.)  Scientific studies are equivocal about the usefulness of zinc supplements and vitamin C in preventing or shortening the duration of cold symptoms.  Finally, in addition to hand washing and avoiding those who appear ill, you can protect yourself by going outside.  Yep, that’s what I said.  Throw on a scarf, hat, jacket, and gloves, and take breaks from the poorly ventilated, over-crowed, heat-dried air office or home by briefly strolling outside in the fresh air.

Now that I’ve told you to spend more time out of doors in the chilled air, let me remind you to be careful when you spend more time out of doors in the chilled air.  If you don’t follow some simple guidelines, time outdoors in the icy wind and sub-zero temperatures places you at risk for hypothermia and even frostbite.  This is especially true if your work requires that you’re outside for extended periods of time.  The risk of hypothermia and frostbite is also greater for the elderly, whose bodies leads them to lose body heat more rapidly than younger folks (thus, hypothermia can hit older people after a shorter period of time outdoors or even when home if there is inadequate heating).  The first signs of hypothermia include obvious coldness of the hands and feet.  This is often followed by mild swelling of the face (a “puffy face”).  Without treatment, the skin (first of the hands and the feet) slowly turns blue or pale.  Advancing hypothermia also affects mentation, and victims become confused or sleepy.  They may have slowing or slurring of their speech and even trouble keeping their balance.  And note, depending on how advanced the hypothermia is, not every sufferer will shiver.  Left untreated, hypothermia can progress to organ damage, including kidney failure, liver injury, and heart attack, with the rare risk of death (all more likely in the elderly).  If you recognized these signs in yourself or another person out in the cold, get into a warmed environment (even a running car with a working heater, if that’s all that’s available).  Get all wet or damp clothes off, and cover yourself with dry blankets or clothing.  And drinking warm beverages is a quick and effective way to bring body temperature back up to safer levels.  And don’t go it alone.  Ask for help from others near you.  Don’t be embarrassed, as hypothermia is a real and significant danger.

Frostbite is even more dangerous than hypothermia and a particular risk for people who are outdoors in cold winds.  In a nutshell, frostbite represents freezing of the skin and, in worse cases, also of the soft tissues beneath the skin.  While exposed skin (nose, ears, forehead, chin, cheeks, etc.) is at particular risk of frostbite, tissue freezing can even occur underneath gloves and boots and clothes if the conditions are harsh enough.  The first, milder stage of frostbite, frostnip, starts as a cold, prickly sensation of the affected skin.  Frostnip is reversible if recognized early enough and professional medical treatment is immediately provided.  If not, frostnip advances to true frostbite, with the impacted areas becoming numb and turning red, gray, or bluish-white.  Soon, the exposed skin becomes hard and waxy.  In the end, the damaged fingers, toes, nose, or other affected tissue suffers irreversible damage.  Left untreated, the dead tissue exposes the frostbite victim to secondary infection.

In general, the key to preventing both hypothermia and frostbite includes first recognizing that your work or behavior (significant time outside in freezing temperatures, particularly when icy winds are strong) is placing you at risk.  Wear several layers of clothing, but wear the layers loosely, allowing the air between layers to warm.  Don’t overdo it with tight, restrictive clothing which actually obstructs free blood circulation to the hands and feet.  And don’t worry about how you look:  cover everything (use caps, masks, scarves, ear muffs, etc.).  Wear water-resistant boots and coats, as clothing which becomes damp or wet dramatically increased the risk of hypothermia and frostbite.  Plan ahead and bring a change of dry clothing (leave it in the car or truck, or keep it in a plastic bag near you).  And set your watch alarm to remind you to take frequent breaks (even short ones) somewhere warm (again, even a running car with a functioning heater will do).  Bring a thermos with warm coffee or tea or soup.  And here’s one you’ll like:  bring snacks and sweet drinks with you to provide much needed calories (you burn energy when working out in the cold).

All of this is critical to do in order to protect you, your loved ones, and your co-workers from suffering the health risks of the winter season.  But you can do one more thing:  check on your elderly neighbors, even if you don’t really know them.  They’re the ones who are not only at greater risk, but who are more likely to sit in a cold home without calling for help.

Me?  I live in Florida.