The end of December marks the official start of the winter season, bringing with it early darkness, snow and biting cold temperatures.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the rage of winter also brings with it a variety of unpleasant illnesses to plague people unfortunate enough to live in a temperate climate, like New Jersey. On the bright side, many illnesses associated with the season can be easily treated or may even be prevented.
To that end, here are five common conditions that occur in winter and what you can do to make them go away or keep them at bay:
1. The Flu
A condition which peaks in the winter months, the flu—medically known as influenza—is not something to sneeze at. In fact, in the U.S. alone, 36,000 people die, and more than 200,000 are hospitalized each year because of the flu (and that doesn’t even account for deaths from flu complications). The people most affected by this seasonal disease are those over 65, infants and young children, pregnant women and those with long-term chronic conditions (e.g., diabetes, kidney disease).
Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to keep the flu from getting to you. These include:
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
- Getting the flu shot each year (and no, the shot DOES NOT give you the flu)
- Not touching your eyes, nose or mouth after touching a surface
- Washing your hands frequently with soap and water or hand sanitizer, especially after being in communal spaces such as the office, subway or the supermarket
Another virus winter is renowned for provoking is the norovirus, commonly known as the stomach bug. It is a highly contagious illness that induces projectile vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps, and wreaks havoc in places likes schools, hospitals and nursing homes.
Unfortunately, unlike the flu shot, there is no medical preventive measure to avoid norovirus. The best you can do is to stay hydrated while you recover and remain at home for 48 hours after symptoms have passed to avoid spreading it to others. In addition:
- Disinfect all surfaces in your home, preferably with a bleach-based cleaner
- Wash clothing or bedding that may be contaminated separately from the other laundry and with hot water
- Wash hands frequently with soap and water (don’t bother with hand sanitizer because it does not kill this particular virus)
3. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
As the days grow darker, shorter and grayer, SAD—an appropriate acronym for the issue—is a form of depression that impacts an estimated 10 million Americans in the summer and winter months. Symptoms commonly associated with the winter version of this condition can include:
- Avoidance of social situations
- Excessive sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- Fatigue and decreased physical activity
- Feeling sad and hopeless
- Suicidal thoughts
- Weight gain
While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, it is theorized it is the result of chemical imbalances, specifically an excess of melatonin—which controls sleep—and a lack of serotonin, which is the “feel good” neurotransmitter in your brain. These imbalances are thought to be connected to the amount of light you’re exposed to. Therefore, light therapy is typically recommended if you have this winter version of this disorder. Light therapy involves sitting near a light box for 30 to 60 minutes, which mimics natural sunlight.
In addition, winter SAD may also be treated by increasing vitamin D levels in the body or by taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are a prescribed antidepressant. Speak to a physician if you think you may have SAD to see what treatments may be right for you.
4. Cold Sores
A cold sore—medically known as a herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection—is a sore that can appear anywhere on the body, but most commonly appears on the mouth and lips. The sores usually last only seven to 10 days and may scab and ooze during that time.
Cold sores tend to appear in the winter because your immune system is more taxed during that time and can be a sign that you’re stressed or run down. There is no cure for cold sores, but taking time to destress at some point in the day (e.g., taking a relaxing bath or walk) can help you keep them from forming. If you frequently suffer from them, a physician may prescribe you an antiviral medication to apply directly to the area or take orally to stop it from developing or increase healing time after it’s already formed.
5. Heart Attacks
Though it may not be the first thing you think of when you think about “common winter ailments,” incidences of heart attack do increase significantly in the winter months. This is most commonly due to the fact that the body has to fight to stay warm, prioritizes blood flow when cold and that blood vessels constrict. All of this puts a big strain on the heart. Wear multiple layers to keep your body temperature up and don’t overexert yourself when performing tasks like shoveling in the cold.
For more tips for staying healthy during the winter season or to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced physicians, contact us today!