4 Essentials for Winter Health and Safety

Family medicine physician provides useful tips to support your cold-weather well-being


  • newswise-fullscreen 4 Essentials for Winter Health and Safety

    Credit: Western Connecticut Medical Group

    Dr. Rachel Chung, Family Medicine, WCMG New Canaan Primary & Immediate Care

Newswise — Colder temperatures, inclement weather, changes in the amount of daylight, and the spread of cold and flu viruses can all have a significant impact on your winter well-being, making it more challenging for you to stay safe and healthy.

Here are four important tips and tricks to help you cope with the cold weather, care for your immune system, and stay active until spring arrives.

Tip 1: Prepare in Advance

A little prevention in the fall can help everyone — and especially older adults — avoid serious wintertime accidents. Precautions include preventing falls by installing handrails and fixing uneven or steep stairs before the weather turns cold and icy.

Fall is also a great time to work on increasing your flexibility. Increasing your flexibility decreases your risk of falling. And if you do fall, flexibility helps to decrease the severity of the injury. Stretching several times a week can improve your flexibility. Traditional stretching, yoga, tai chi, or Pilates are all great ways to stay flexible.

Tip 2: Stay Safe Inside and Outdoors

Snow, sleet, ice, and bitter cold temperatures can make it difficult to get around by vehicle and on foot — especially if you have limited mobility or another health condition that prevents you from safely leaving home when winter weather strikes.

If you are staying home…

It is especially important for people with limited mobility to pay attention to the weather forecast and plan ahead to ensure that they are well-stocked with supplies — such as non-perishable food, water, and medication — before winter weather occurs.

If you are dependent on medication and your supply is running low, make sure you refill your prescription before a winter storm hits. For non-controlled medications, your healthcare provider may be able to work with you to authorize an early fill. And, if leaving home to pick up your medications might be an issue, check with your pharmacy to see if they offer medication delivery.

Keep your devices — especially your mobile phone — fully charged in case you suddenly lose power. Also keep a few other household items readily available and easily accessible, including: a flashlight with new batteries, extra batteries, blankets, and toilet paper, and warm clothing.

Many people use indoor fireplaces as a supplementary heat source in the winter. It is essential to check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to make sure they are working.

If you are going out…

We all know that dressing warmly can help us stay comfortable when we head outdoors in the winter. Dressing warmly can have other benefits too. For example, if you fall, you’re less likely to get injured if your body is relaxed because you’re warm.

When there is ice and snow on the ground, avoid snow- and ice-covered walkways and watch out for black ice. Wear shoes with good traction and take shorter steps with your toes pointed outward when walking. Also take extra time when going from inside your home to your car.

Tip 3: Keep Exercising

For people who do not have a home gym and exercise outside or at the gym, winter weather can make it challenging to stick to a normal gym routine. It’s not always easy to get enough exercise in the winter because we are less inclined to go outside when it’s cold or dark. Despite these obstacles, it’s very important to continue exercising during the winter months.

The benefits of wintertime exercise

Exercise helps keep your immune system strong, reducing your risk of getting colds, flu, or other common winter illnesses. Exercise also causes your body to release mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins, which may reduce your risk of developing a type of depression often tied to fall and winter weather called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Maintaining a regular exercise routine may make it easier to avoid wintertime weight gain, which research states could be related to evolutionary factors and lack of sunlight, or lifestyle changes such as decreased activity levels or holiday eating.

How to stay active during the winter

For people who do not have mobility issues or health conditions affected by cold weather, it is possible to safely exercise outdoors. Get outside, embrace the cold, and be active. Consider winter activities and sports such as snowshoeing and cross country or downhill skiing.

When exercising outside during the winter, wear layers that allow your body to adjust to temperature changes. If you have a respiratory condition that is affected by the cold such as asthma or reactive airway disease, wear a muffler or scarf so the air you breathe is less cold, and make sure to use your inhaler before exercising outdoors.

And, of course, be sure to find a safe place to exercise and avoid hazards — such as running in icy areas — that could lead to a serious fall.

If you cannot safely leave your home during inclement weather, it is still possible to get a good workout. Consider using resistance bands for strengthening, dance for aerobic activity, and yoga or Pilates for flexibility.

Tip 4: Get Your Flu Vaccine

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that can affect the nose, throat, and lungs. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can sometimes lead to serious complications that result in death.

People age 65 and older, pregnant women, and children under the age of five — as well as people of any age with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease — are at a higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications.

According to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of eight percent of Americans get sick from the flu each season. To reduce your risk of catching the flu, the best thing you can do is get your flu vaccine, also called the influenza vaccination or flu shot.

Most people six months old and older should get the flu vaccine. You need to get a flu vaccine every year so you are protected against the current strain of the flu.

Getting the flu vaccine does more than just protect you; it also protects your friends, co-workers, and family members from getting the flu. Some people can’t get the flu vaccine, such as people who are immunocompromised. So it’s especially important for people who can get the vaccine to do so.

Flu vaccine myths and facts

Although there are many myths about the flu vaccine, it has been tested for many years and has been proven to be safe and effective.

Getting the flu vaccine does not unnecessarily expose you to the flu. To put it into perspective, you are exposed to more flu antigens by going to the grocery store than by getting the vaccine. People still go to the grocery store, so people should also get the flu vaccine.

Special flu vaccine considerations

People who are at high risk of developing serious complications from the flu — such as pregnant women and people over the age of 65 — should be sure to get the flu vaccine.

The flu can cause more severe illness in pregnant women. Because mom passes the antibodies to her developing baby during pregnancy, the flu vaccine can help protect the baby after birth. This protection is important because babies can’t receive the flu vaccine until they are six months old.

People age 65 and older should get the quadrivalent flu vaccine, which has four times the amount of flu antigen and stimulates a better response to the immunization. Another option is the adjuvanted trivalent flu vaccine, which revs up the effectiveness of the immunization.

Don’t forget about pneumonia vaccine

In addition to the flu vaccine, people age 65 and older should also get the pneumonia vaccine. If you have a history of developing pneumonia, your healthcare provider may recommend that you get the vaccine earlier. To receive full protection, you will need to receive two pneumonia vaccines given one year apart. 

Check out this related article: 5 Common Holiday Stressors and How to Manage Them

By Dr. Rachel Chung, Family Medicine, Western Connecticut Medical Group New Canaan Primary & Immediate Care

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