Health & Fitness

Maybe you love winter for its sparkling, romantic, beautiful snow -- presuming it’s not the knee-deep brown slush of a Midwestern city. Maybe you love it for the many sports opportunities it provides anyone who owns a coat. (Get out there and enjoy it, folks; the only weather that matters is the weather next to your skin.) Or maybe you hate winter but can’t tear yourself away from your roots, or your only trade is outdoor ice sculpting.

That about covers the rational reasons for living up north. Otherwise, move. Try sunny California and its constant 70 degrees and clear, blue skies. Oops . . . never mind. No place is perfect.

But, seriously, folks, winter offers health hazards everywhere from Barrow to Brownsville. Some hazards are worse up north, some worse in the south, but all are manageable. Read, heed, and make your winter easier wherever you live.

An obvious hazard is hypothermia. It’s forewarned by a shiver, starts with serious shivering and blurred speech, numbs your mind so you don’t realize it’s happening, and can progress through a variety of mental and physical symptoms to end in rigor mortis if not averted. It happens to infants, old people, and the ill most easily, even in moderate surroundings such as an overcooled room, because their temperature control mechanisms are compromised. Alcohol exacerbates cold’s effects and blottos our minds so we don’t care that we’re freezing to death. At a certain core temperature our body just stops producing heat and we’re doomed if no one gives us dry clothes, applies moderate external heat to our torso and head, and lets us drink warm alcohol-free fluids.

But hypothermia kills “only” about 600 Americans a year. What really nails people in the winter is heart and brain attacks (strokes) and congestive heart failure (CHG), which often peak dramatically in the winter, especially around the holidays. Even moderately cold weather raises blood pressure, which overworks the heart and ultimately may erode our arteries. It also changes blood chemistry so it clots – and clogs arteries – sooner. The holidays’ increased stress and excess fat, food and alcohol add a major hit to the cold weather, even where “cold” means 65 rather than LA’s summertime 75 or Phoenix’s 115 (seasonal daylight cycles are suspected as an additional factor).

Which brings us to SAD. Seasonal affective disorder renders one or two percent of us virtually inoperative with serious clinical depression. It’s probably due to oversensitivity to diurnal light cycle variations -- short days -- abetted by cultural factors (Russians and Icelanders don’t bother much with SAD). $pecial $AD therapy lamp$ help, but a walk in the sunshine is far more effective. Modern anti-depression meds are helping with SAD, but may introduce their own set of problems.

The less sun we get and the farther north we live, the lower our blood levels of vitamin D get. Read more about that in our October, 2003 column. Your heart and bone health are strongly influenced by your vitamin D levels, and their best source is sunshine on your skin.

Falls on ice crack wrists, hips, and heads. To avoid them, widen your stance, bend your knees slightly, and lean forward slightly to keep your weight on the balls of your feet and prevent blind backward falls. Make sure any walking stick or cane you may use has a sharp point to penetrate the ice. Button your coat up snugly and be ready to toss that laptop or big purse aside so you can use both hands for balance or grabbing a railing if you slip. When getting in or out of your car on ice, hang on and make sure of your footing. When you do fall, do it incrementally – thigh, then hip, then shoulder – to spread the fall over several light impacts.

A great equalizer – and killer -- is snow. Shoveling is a particularly enormous strain on any heart, very quickly exceeding the safe limits for aerobic exercise. The heavier and wetter the snow, the faster the morgues fill up. Unless you’re a serious competitive athlete in need of a world-class workout, scrape it off rather than lifting it. Those opposed to or restricted from exercise can always use snow blowers or neighborhood kids. Shoveling’s level and duration of upper body exercise are extremely demanding; shovel much less snow and much less vigorously than you think you should. And don’t forget that a jammed snow blower can kick back and maim you even when it’s turned off. Clear a jam with a stick and stay out of the line of fire.

Bronchitis is usually a winter threat, and can usually be avoided. We discussed it in February, 1999. The bottom line: a bedroom humidifier may banish your bronchitis for good.

Flu’s even easier. Unless you know for a fact that you’re allergic to eggs, get a freaking flu shot, you wuss. Most people can’t feel the needle or any soreness afterwards, and influenza is AWFUL stuff. Those sniffles or”24-hour flu” things aren’t flu; they’re just “generic bugs” in your respiratory system or your gut. Once you get influenza, you’ll never again be afraid of a little flu shot. Besides, flu kills tens of thousands of Americans every year and may even lead to many of those winter heart attacks and strokes. In fact, flu shots may cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 50%.

Colds are not so easy. The only sure cure or preventative is luck; some people just don’t catch colds. The rest must just gut them out, with maybe some symptomatic relief from OTC decongestants and Tylenol. You may skip a cold or two or a case of the flu by washing your hands very often in warm soapy water and minimizing your exposure to crowds.

Frostnip hurts like blazes, then clears up as its redness dissipates and the swelling goes down. As long as it doesn’t get numb and isn’t warmed up too quickly, it will heal fine. Frostbite is another animal altogether. It kills flesh, and even mild cases become excruciatingly painful as they warm up (very slowly!). Large or penetrating freezing is a serious medical condition requiring immediate hospital care. The best way to prevent both is to realize that “macho” is Spanish for “stupid” – i.e., dress properly. There’s more on that and cold weather exercise safety in our December, 2001 column.

The last threat may come when you’ve come in from the cold and crank up some heat to get warm. Any fuel we burn to produce heat or light can produce carbon monoxide, which is effectively a poison, not simply a lack of oxygen in the room. You can still die from CO exposure even after you walk out of a house full of it, and many people feel sick, tired, or headachy all winter if their furnace puts out a little CO. Use CO detectors in your home and office and have a pro check out your furnace annually.

Make sure your pets have a warm, dry place to sleep. Their lives and comfort are completely in your hands. Even your horses need special protection as early as the first leaves begin to turn (some into toxic products). Check those precautions out by clicking here.

This final comment isn’t a health issue, but it surely is a winter issue and may save you a few shivers and a little sleep. Every auto glass professional will tell you never to pour water on an icy windshield. They insist we use elbow grease and a scraper to remove ice. But I’ve used warm or hot tap water all winter on all my auto glass for 45 years without one single problem -- not down to 30 below zero F in five upstate New York winters, not through a decade of ice storms up to half an inch thick in the deep south, not in a decade north of Salt Lake City, and not through five years of wet sub-freezing winters in WA state. Wipers, warm water, drive. Not one problem, not even with pre-existing stone cracks.


If it ever costs me a windshield or window, that’s $50. Half a century without scraping windshields: priceless.

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