Photo by: Rich Pearce (Flickr)
Many people fret over the increased risk of catching a cold or the flu during the winter months. The chances of you or your patients coming down with these common ailments increase exponentially when the outside temperatures drop. But, as healthcare professionals, we need to consider that colder weather wreaks havoc on many other medical conditions as well, including an increased risk of heart attacks. As such, living well during the winter months should be a primary focus of any patient's healthcare practices.
Aside from colds and the flu, winter weather ushers in troubles for those who suffer from arthritis, asthma, and Raynaud's phenomenon. The winter can increase your chance of breaking out into cold sores, and we all know how terrible dry skin is when it's cold outside. The stomach flu can hit during the winter months, and I'm quite certain you deal with many cases of sore throats. Viruses thrive during the winter and are the primary cause of many of these ailments.
I know that you're not surprised that your elderly patients are particularly susceptible to cold-weather viruses, but did you also know that they are more susceptible to having a heart attack when the temperatures take a nosedive? This is because our blood pressure tends to run a little higher during colder weather, so the holidays aren't the only additional stress placed on the heart muscle. So, what can we do to encourage our patients to have a healthy and happy winter?
Well, you know all the common sense stuff, but it bears repeating anyway just to refresh all of our memories. Yes, as nurses we wash our hands all day long, but encourage your patients to wash their hands frequently during colder weather as well. Sick people are unintentionally spreading germs on doorknobs, light switches, faucets, and so on. Keeping hands clean helps prevent picking up the germs left behind by others.
Encourage your patients to keep warm when both indoors and outdoors. Of course it's warmer inside, but it can still get too cold if your patients can't afford to heat their home effectively - a plight of many elderly. Talk to your patients about proper indoor temperatures, and offer suggestions to help them stay warm inside including wearing thermal underwear and shutting off portions of their house they do not use. This is particularly important for cardiac patients who are at higher risk of heart attack during colder weather; staying warm keeps the blood pressure in check.
Another thing to encourage, no matter your patient's age, particularly if your patient is asthmatic, is bundling up properly when outdoors. This includes wearing a warm scarf, hat, and gloves. Asthma patients should cover their nose and mouths with their scarves to ensure they are not inhaling colder air. Gloves and wool socks also help patients suffering from Raynaud's phenomenon.
Help your patients keep dry winter skin at bay by avoiding the temptation to jump into a super-hot shower during the cooler temperatures. Hot water actually dries out the skin and hair, can exacerbate certain forms of arthritis, and increases blood pressure. A warm shower is suitable, still comforting, and helps avoid the itchy, scaly winter skin!
Along with winter ailments, winter can also bring about depression, which, in cases such as joint pain, can increase the sensation of the winter ailment. So, no matter how cold the weather is outside, we all need to stay active and eat healthy. Perhaps one of the greatest tips I can give on living well in colder temperatures is keeping your summer mentality.
There is no excuse to avoid staying active during the winter months, especially those at greater risk of heart trouble during colder weather. Get up, move around, and encourage your patients to do the same. You'll be surprised how nice a brisk walk in cool weather can actually be. And, replace all your fat-laden cold-weather comfort foods with healthy substitutes! For more on these tips, check out some of my previous blog posts!
We can all stay healthy and happy during the colder temperature months. It might take some extra effort and layers of clothing, but wintertime does not have to be sickness time. Alongside proper vaccinations against the flu and pneumonia where necessary, proper hygiene, keeping warm, and staying active will help keep winter illnesses at bay, which is important, because who wants to be sick around the holidays?
What are Common Winter Illnesses and How Can Our Patients Avoid Them?
- Get Set for Winter Illness Season - This PDF file from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives helpful tips to healthcare professionals and their patients on how to avoid an unhealthy winter season.
- Winter Cardiovascular Diseases Phenomenon - The National Institutes of Health published this North American Journal of Medical Sciences article on the phenomenon of cold weather and increased risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular issues.
- Common Cold - The Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center presents comprehensive facts and information about the common cold, one of winter's number one ailments.
- Winter Health: Cold and Flu Q and A - Refresh your working knowledge of the differences between the cold and flu by reading this Wake Forest Baptist Health Center article on winter colds and flu viruses.
- Winter Safety for Older Adults - The University of Nevada's Cooperative Extension program discusses winter safety measures our elderly can take to avoid being ill during the winter season in this PDF link.
- Health Today: Stay Vigilant in Preventing Disease This Winter - The University of Louisville gives sound advice on ways we can all staying healthier during the colder winter months.
- Top Five Ways to Stay Healthy This Winter - Drexel University offers five tips that you can discuss with your patients to help them stay healthier this winter season.
What are Some Ways to Stay Healthy and Active During the Winter Months?
- Stay Active Through the Winter - New Hampshire is definitely one of the colder winter states in the U.S. and offers some suggestions to keep your patients moving during the winter months in this PDF file.
- Winter Activities - Massachusetts is another cold-weather state ready to help with suggestions to keep healthy and active when it's cold outside.
- Quick Tips: Staying Active in Cold Weather - Dartmouth University's Norris Cotton Cancer Center offers some quick tips on how we can all stay active and healthy during colder weather.
- Making Comfort Foods Healthier - Clemson University's Cooperative Extension gives some sound advice in this link on how to make winter comfort foods healthy and still comforting.
- Healthy Winter Comfort Food - Australian website “Taste” provides readers with some healthier recipes for winter comfort food certain to please and warm on the inside.