From flaking skin to stiff joints, here are nine winter health changes explained — plus tips for staying healthy this season.
Ever wonder why the cold weather can make you feel — or even look — years older? From dry skin, to poor circulation, to weight gain, winter can seriously wreak havoc on your system. We spoke with Scott Joy, MD, an internal medicine doctor at Presbyterian St Luke's Medical Center in Denver, Colorado to learn the science behind cold-weather side effects.
Here are nine ways winter affects your health, plus tips on how to take care of yourself when the temperature drops.
1. Your toes feel numb.
Our bodies are built for survival, even in the bitter cold. When you step outside, blood vessels near your body’s surface tighten. That pushes blood towards the organs that will help you think clearly and move quickly until you can find shelter.
Warm, oxygen-rich blood is sent to your brain, heart, and lungs, and is directed away from your limbs, says Dr. Joy.
That’s why your fingers and toes go numb if they’re not bundled up. If you have poor circulation from a condition like diabetes or peripheral artery disease, you’re especially prone to numb feet. That increases your risk for falls and injuries. Protect your feet by following these tips from the American Diabetes Association.
2. Your blood pressure goes up.
When the chilly air causes surface blood vessels to tighten, your heart has to work harder to pump blood. That leads to an increase in blood pressure.
On top of that, indulgent holiday foods may contain more salt, which also elevates blood pressure. Throw in extra couch time and less outdoor exercise due to the weather, and the holiday season can be an especially high-risk time for people with heart conditions, explains Joy.
Invest in a blood pressure monitor from the drug store and check your numbers regularly. For most people, blood pressure should be below 120 for the top number and below 80 for the bottom number.
3. Your joints feel stiff.
Do your joints have the uncanny ability to predict the weather? If so, they may feel especially stiff on chilly winter mornings. While changes in air pressure cause the joint pains that often come before storms, low temperatures can decrease flexibility and lead to stiffness.
“Think of your tendons as rubber bands,” says Joy. “If you expose a rubber band to cold temperatures, it becomes less flexible. Cold weather tightens up the ligaments and tendons, which are the structures that support your joints.”
Create a morning stretching routine to loosen your joints and ease stiffness before stepping out into the cold. Stretching can help wake you up, get your blood flowing and prevent injuries.
Related: 6 Ways to Stay Pain Free This Winter
4. You put on weight.
When the days get short and chilly, the temptation to stay indoors, binge watch your favorite show, and munch on holiday cookies can be pretty strong. “Winter brings the perfect storm of exposure to excess calories and lower activity levels,” says Joy.
The reason for cold weather cravings? Possible explanations include:
- Carbs boost serotonin, a feel good brain chemical, which your body may be craving to help fight off winter blues.
- Being active suppresses your appetite to a certain extent. Since you’re less active in winter, your appetite may increase.
- Fatty, high-carb foods are simply more comforting, which makes them your number one choice at the end of a long, cold day.
5. You feel tired and sad.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the changing seasons, explains Joy. SAD can also contribute to winter weight gain, with SAD sufferers gaining up to six to nine pounds during cold months. Other symptoms of SAD include sleeping too much or too little, feeling tired all the time, and feeling mentally slow or sluggish.
If you suspect you have SAD, reach out to a counselor. Up to 60 percent of people with this condition don’t seek help, even though it’s highly treatable. Treatment options include the use of a special light box, which can mimic natural light on dark mornings, boost your mood, and improve your symptoms in as little as a few days.
6. Your skin’s dry and flaky.
Your skin tends to dry out in the winter because the cold air contains less moisture. You might also be using hotter water to shower and wash your hands, which dries your skin even further.
If the cold air has your face flaking and your hands chapped, it’s time to break out some heavy-duty moisturizer: Opt for one with ceramide, which replaces your skin’s natural oils. Always moisturize right after you get out of the shower, when your pores are open and absorbent because of the steam. Also, use warm water instead of hot water when possible.
7. You up your heart attack risk.
Snow shoveling sends 11,000 people to the emergency room every year. It increases your risk for deadly falls, back injuries, and heart attacks.
Part of the reason why shoveling increases heart attack risk is the amount of exertion it requires. Shoveling causes a spike in the energy used, causing your heart rate to go up dramatically. At the same time, your blood pressure increases due to the cold.
If you have a heart condition, don’t shovel. If you’re a healthy adult, avoid shoveling first thing in the morning, when heart attacks are most likely to occur. Other tips: Bundle up, stay hydrated, and stop to call 9-1-1 if you feel chest pain, shortness of breath, or any heart attack symptoms.
8. You constantly catch colds.
You may know that winter is cold and flu season, but you might not know why.
“It's a concept called crowding,” explains Joy. “We huddle together and spend more time indoors. Family, friends and coworkers all come closer together and share germs.” Plus, winter air is drier, which some experts believe causes viruses to live longer. On top of that, dry mucous membranes may have a harder time resisting germs. Changes to your sleep cycle, which come from the shorter days, can weaken your immune system as well.
Keep the cold and flu from spreading by:
- Getting your flu shot
- Covering your mouth with the crook of your elbow to keep germs from landing on your hands
- Washing your hands frequently
9. You up your CO poisoning risk.
Another way winter could land you in the hospital? “There are around 20,000 ER visits in the U.S. each year, about 4,000 people are hospitalized and 400 die due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning,” says Joy. Poisoning can happen when people use unsafe heating practices such as turning on their oven and leaving the oven door open.
To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning:
- Don’t use charcoal grills, gas ranges, or camp stoves in the house
- Don't use your oven as a heater
- Don’t try to warm your car in the garage — even with the garage door open