Winter weather is here, and with it comes a whole new set of health hazards we need to know about and protect against. Some threats make the news — such as heart attacks triggered by shoveling snow — while others are just as dangerous but more subtle.
And the threats are not just from falling snow, but also from falling temperatures.
Here are five hidden dangers you should know about.
Heart attack and stroke
The blizzards that hit the East Coast this winter focused attention on the dangers of shoveling snow, but you can't blame the spike in winter heart attacks entirely on the mountains of white stuff that covered driveways and sidewalks. The number of heart attacks increases in winter — more than 50 percent, according to some estimates. But that's true all across the country, including in some Sun Belt states that never see a snowflake. It's the seasonal change in temperature from summer to winter that may be to blame, so people are more likely to have heart attacks in winter whether they live in Florida or Minnesota. Why? There's no clear explanation. Researchers speculate that air pollution, diet, exercise, variations in blood pressure and cholesterol — both higher in winter — or changes in the immune system might play a role.
Even small drops in temperature can cause big problems. British researchers found that temperatures that fell less than 2 degrees in a single day resulted in a 2 percent rise in the number of heart attacks that occurred during the next 2 weeks. That meant about 200 more heart attacks throughout England and Wales per "colder" day, according to a 3-year study of temperature records and 84,000 hospital admissions.
Arteries respond to cold by constricting, and that makes us more prone to heart attacks. Narrowed arteries cut down the flow of blood through the body, "making your heart work harder," says cardiologist Roger Blumenthal, director of the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. Moreover, as we age, cold hits us harder — especially when the thermometer drops below freezing. Men and women in their 70s or 80s feel the cold more severely than those in their 50s.
"The older you get, the harder it is to regulate body temperature," says Ronan Factora, an internist at the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Geriatric Medicine. "There's less fat and muscle, less ability to generate heat."
Whether you've been shoveling snow in New York or taking on your teenager in an all-out game of tennis in Florida, it's wise to pay attention to what your heart's trying to tell you. Heart attacks can start slowly and cause only mild pressure or fullness in the center or left side of your chest, or you may feel discomfort in your back, shoulders, neck or jaw, or unexpected shortness of breath or unexplained fatigue (especially in women). Don't tough it out. Call 911.
High blood pressure
Winter's lower temperatures also affect blood pressure. To conserve heat and maintain body temperature, blood vessels narrow and blood pressure rises as the heart works overtime to keep blood moving through the body. As a result, the tissue that makes up the walls of the arteries stretches and may become damaged. Plaque buildup at these damaged sites can tear and lead to blood clots that trigger a heart attack or stroke, according to Blumenthal, which may help explain why both of these events occur more frequently during the winter.
It's not only the cold that may affect blood pressure and spell trouble for your heart. Researchers in Scotland found that changes in the type of weather also had an impact on blood pressure. Drops in temperature, as well as lack of sunshine and rainfall (after all, it's Scotland) all increased blood pressure in temperature-senstitive people. But since we can't control the weather, stick with tried-and-true ways that help: Eat more fruits and vegetables, cut down on salt and alcohol, and get more exercise.
Most of us just shrug off the short, dark days of winter and look forward to spring, while others react to the lack of light with sadness, fatigue, trouble concentrating and excessive sleepiness, a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Scientists can't pinpoint specific causes for this form of depression. It's often linked to reduced exposure to sunlight and it may be genetic, since SAD can run in families.
Some people can relieve a mild bout of the winter blues with a long morning walk outdoors. If you're struggling to cope with SAD, talk to your doctor. Severe symptoms can be eased in several ways, including light therapy that simulates sunlight, antidepressant medication and a type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy.
Lack of vitamin D
A growing number of studies support the idea that a deficiency of the sunshine vitamin is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. The sun's rays trigger the production of vitamin D in the skin. Exposing your sunscreen-free arms and legs for just a few minutes, a few times a week, produces significant amounts. But if you live where winters are long, chances are that it's too cold to expose any skin.
Also, with age, the ability to make vitamin D drops. Although some foods such as fish, egg yolks, and fortified milk and orange juice contain vitamin D, they don't provide much. Adding vitamin D supplements can help make up for the shortfall. Check with your doctor about whether you may need one.
Cold air is often dry air, and that spells trouble for people with asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema. Cold air causes airways to tighten, so breathing becomes more difficult. If you venture out in frigid weather, use a face mask, or wrap a soft scarf around your nose and mouth and breathe through your nose in order to filter, warm and humidify the air before it reaches your lungs.
Staying active is especially important for preserving lung health, no matter the weather. Exercise outdoors with a brisk walk when the weather's tolerable, because getting fresh air has added benefits. You'll increase endorphins — hormones that make you feel happier and more energetic — and you'll burn more calories. When it's too awful to go outside, watch an exercise video, pump up the music and get your feel-good hormones flowing.
Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues. Updated by freelance health writer Nissa Simon.