The cold, winter months can pose a risk to our physical health – including our immune system, heart, balance, skin, body temperature and more.
As cold weather, snow and ice become part of our everyday normal in the Midwest, HSHS St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital offers the following information and guidance to help you protect and maintain your health this time of year.
“As we approach our winter months, the cold weather can cause your blood vessels to constrict, which can aggravate existing conditions or make new ones worse,” said Dr. Ryan Jennings, St. Anthony’s chief medical officer. “Your immune system, heart, skin and musculoskeletal system may all be affected.”
Immune system – During winter months, people spend more time inside and in close contact with each other, such as in stores, malls, and restaurants. This means that flu, colds, and other respiratory illnesses are more easily spread.
- What you can do: Stay up to date on all of your vaccinations including flu and COVID-19, wash your hands frequently with soap and water or hand sanitizer, stay home if you’re sick, and cough and sneeze into the crook of your elbow, not your hands.
Heart – Cold weather acts as a vasoconstrictor, which means it narrows blood vessels. This raises the risk of heart attack.
- What you can do: Dress warmly when going out, with a hat, gloves and a warm coat. If you already suffer from heart issues, limit strenuous activity outdoors that may stress your heart, such as shoveling snow.
Balance – Icy sidewalks can make falling easier, putting you at risk for fractures.
- What you can do: Avoid slippery surfaces if possible. Wear shoes or boots with heavily textured soles that can grip surfaces. Use handrails, even if you feel you don't need one. You can even “walk like a penguin.” Bend slightly forward and walk flat-footed with your center of gravity directly over your feet as much as possible.
Skin – Dry, winter air can deplete moisture from your skin.
- What you can do: Use a moisturizer with an oil base to block evaporation. Shower in lukewarm—not hot—water. Use a humidifier to replenish moisture to the skin's top layer.
Body temperature – Older adults are at risk for hypothermia, in which the body's internal temperature falls too low. Even prolonged exposure to mild cold can cause it.
- What you can do: Bundle up if you're going outside and be aware of signs that your body isn't handling the cold well, such as stiffness in the neck, arms and legs. Call 911 if you suspect you or someone you know is suffering from hypothermia.
Additional cold weather safety tips can be found at cdc.gov/disasters/winter.