News & Events

Winter health hazards

By Joanne Pallotta, Tufts Medical Center Correspondent

From influenza to injury, the winter months can be hazardous to your health.  

Mary Brown, MD is a Pediatrician at Tufts Children's Hospital.While you can’t avoid every threat, Mary Brown, MD, a pediatrician at Tufts Children's Hospital at Tufts Medical Center says educating yourself about the potential risks can help you protect your family.

Cold vs. flu

Colds and flu are prevalent in the winter months. Both can have symptoms that include sneezing, coughing, sore throat, and chest congestion. But, there are some important differences.

Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory system that can last five to seven days. Often times, people are contagious even before they know they have it.   

There are very real dangers associated with influenza that can be life threatening or even deadly. “The flu can cause secondary conditions, like pneumonia,” says Dr. Brown. “People that may be at risk are children who may have smaller airways or asthma and the elderly.” 

Indicators of the flu are abrupt and could include fever, aches, chills, and fatigue/weakness. While not uncommon, a cold doesn’t usually display these symptoms. While there is no cure for either the cold or the flu, anti-viral medications may lessen the effects. The flu vaccine is your best bet for protecting yourself against influenza. With both ailments, washing hands often, disinfecting commonly touched areas and avoiding close contact may help lessen the spread.

Asthma, allergies + eczema

Asthma may be harder to control during the winter because the chilly, dry air can aggravate airways. “It [asthma] will often constrict the muscles around the lungs,” says Dr. Brown. Colds and other respiratory infections can also worsen asthma symptoms. Taking preventive measures is important for those with asthma. “Most of our kids will take their medication beforehand if they know they are going to be outside for a while,” explained Dr. Brown. 

Allergies don’t just plague people in the fall and spring, they strike during the winter as well. Allergens, such as mold, dander and dust mites can cause sneezing, running noses, and coughing.  Unlike a cold, allergies can last the entire season. Your best bet for relief is to eliminate as many of the allergens as possible and bring increased humidity into your home.

Eczema can be caused by a variety of factors including stress, and the skin condition often intensifies during the winter months.

To prevent an eczema flare up:

  • Avoid drying out your skin with a very hot bath or shower
  • Use a humidifier to get moisture into the air
  • Apply moisturizer often
  • Stay hydrated
  • Take vitamin D

Winter blues

The so-called “winter blues” is a very real condition. You might experience a shift in your mood due to colder, darker days. Most of the time, the winter blues won’t affect your life. But, there is a condition called seasonal affective disorder or SAD and it can be much more serious.  

People who experience SAD have feelings of hopelessness or depression, lack interest at home or at work, or could even have suicidal feelings. Your physician can help you distinguish between the two and get you help.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

As people fire up their heating systems, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning increases.  According to Centers for Disease Control, more than 400 people in the United States die each year from accidental CO poisoning. Symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and/or confusion.

The best way to prevent CO poisoning is to perform annual maintenance on your heating system, keep vents clear, never run your vehicle, a generator, or grill in an enclosed area, and most importantly, install CO detectors throughout your home.

Winter injuries

Dr. Brown says she sees plenty of fractures in the winter months. Add to that list, back pain/strain, frostbite and hypothermia. Some of these risks you may be able to reduce or avoid.

Frostbite and hypothermia are both caused by exposure to cold. Frostbite is a lack of blood circulation to body parts, with signs including numbness, redness, pain and a waxy feeling of the skin. Hypothermia is exposure to cold for a longer period of time where the body temperature becomes dangerously low, with symptoms of exhaustion, confusion, slurred speech, and memory loss.  
Dressing correctly for the cold and to avoid exposure for long durations can lessen your chance of either frostbite or hypothermia.

Another wintertime danger:  heart attacks, especially for those people doing any kind of strenuous activity outside.  An activity – like shoveling snow – can increase blood pressure and heart rates while the cold air constricts blood vessels, decreasing the amount of oxygen to the heart.  

If you aren’t sure about your risk, consult your physician.

Reducing your risk

Dr. Brown says reducing your risk of sickness or injury in the wintertime, while not full proof, can be easy.  She suggests:

  • Washing your hands frequently;
  • Coughing or sneezing into your elbow;
  • Getting everyone in the family vaccinated;
  • Eating healthy and getting enough sleep
  • Dressing appropriately to go outside.

You should always consult your physician if you have questions. If you need an adult primary care physician, learn more about our care team here >. To find a pediatrician, learn more about our care team here >

Posted January 2020

The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.