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Preventing Common Winter Diseases

Sandy Johnson, RN, NREMT-P, MSTC EMS coordinator

Have you ever thought about the diseases that come around every winter season? Living in this cold and snowy environment five to six months of every year, we tend to get used to the various winter ailments circulating around us.


One of the most common diseases is the flu (influenza). The flu is a respiratory disease most commonly accompanied by a headache, fever, cold, body aches, chills, fatigue and cough. Typically the flu is highly-contagious and can spread to others via airborne droplet form. Between 10 – 20 percent of the population contracts the flu each year.

It can come on suddenly and is more serious and long-lasting than a regular cold. Flu season in the United States generally spans from November to April. Flu vaccine remains the best way to prevent and control influenza. A new flu shot is needed every year because the predominant flu viruses change.

Common Cold

The common cold is another disease which attacks all ages; however, children are especially vulnerable. On average, a child will get four to eight colds per year. The good thing is that as children grow, they develop resistance to more and more types of cold viruses Colds typically start with a scratchy, irritated throat, muscle aches, headache, decreased appetite and sneezing. There is no vaccine for the common cold as there are more than 200 types of cold viruses. Treatment is usually aimed at the symptoms and as the old adage goes, “A cold will disappear in a week if you treat it and it will go away in seven days if you don’t.”

Some people suffer with sinusitis (inflammation of the sinus in the nasal cavity) all year round, but the cold weather seems to aggravate this condition for many. Histamine release causes constriction along the nasal cavity, which makes it difficult for the person to breathe. Sinusitis can also cause frequent sneezing, irritability and a mild headache. A build-up of mucous only increases the severity of the symptoms. There are a number of sinus medications available to help decrease the swelling and mucous production, but sometimes antibiotics are necessary.

Cold viruses and the flu can be passed through coughing, sneezing and contaminated surfaces, such as the hands. In an effort to reduce your risk of exposure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends regular washing of the hands with warm, soapy water for about 15 seconds. Children should be taught to do the same.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that while soap and water are undoubtedly the first choice for hand hygiene, alcohol-based hand rubs may be used if soap and water are not available. However, the FDA cautions against using the alcohol-based rubs when hands are visibly dirty. This is because organic material, such as dirt or blood, can inactivate the alcohol, rendering it unable to kill bacteria. Keep surfaces cleaned regularly using a bleach-based or virus-cidal product. Try to limit your exposure with sick people and practice healthy habits, such as eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, exercising, doing your best to keep stress in check, drinking plenty of fluids, and dressing warm for the weather.

Heart Disease Complications

During colder seasons, heart disease cases tend to increase because the cold, winter temperatures cause the blood vessels to constrict, which can inevitably cause the person to be at risk for stroke, myocardial infarction and artery rupture.

Additionally, people are outside performing tasks that require considerable effort, such as shoveling snow, which puts strain on the cardiovascular system. Anyone with a cardiovascular condition should check with their physician before exerting themselves in cold weather.


Arthritis is another condition that may be triggered or made worse by the cold weather. Most people who suffer from arthritis will agree that cold, damp weather increases their arthritis pain; some can predict if it going to rain or snow based on their level of pain and stiffness.

Research from Tuft’s University suggests changes in barometric pressure worsen knee pain in people with arthritis, while colder temperatures can cause painful changes in joint fluid thickness. Other studies have shown very few or no links between weather and point pain.

If the cold weather bothers your arthritis pain, keep moving! Your joints need exercise as it helps to lubricate them to prevent/reduce pain. Supplements and vitamin D help some people; however, you should consult your physician about which supplements are appropriate for you. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins K and C have been noted to curb inflammation and pain associated with arthritis.

Mental Health

Mental health issues, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), often follow climatic changes, with sufferers experiencing extreme depression during the long, dark, cold days of winter. SAD is believed to be linked to levels of melatonin, a hormone that is influenced by light, which promotes sleep.

Sufferers generally experience total loss of interest, problems with sleeping and eating, irritability, and a pervasive depressed mood. Physicians commonly prescribe light therapy and antidepressants to ease the symptoms of SAD.


Frostbite is a seasonal concern for those who live in a cold environment. Frostbite is an injury to the body due to freezing and causes a loss of feeling and color in affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes.

Frostbite can permanently damage the body; severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and among those who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.

Frostbite and hypothermia often go hand-in-hand and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider. Taking preventive action is your best defense against extreme cold-weather conditions. By preparing your home and car in advance for winter emergencies, and by observing safety precautions during times of extremely cold weather, you can reduce the risk of weather-related problems.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns, seek your EMS Medical Director’s advice and follow your protocols. Take care and stay warm!
www.fda.gov, www.cdc.gov, www.weather.com, www.rightdiagnosis.com

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