Winter brings its own health issues

News editor

Winter weather brings with it a variety of health issues for many people, ranging from illnesses like colds and flus to conditions even more directly related to the cold.

“Signs of hypothermia start by simply feeling cold, shivering, and increased heart rate,” said Karen Wheeler, advanced registered nurse practitioner at Marion Family Physicians. “As it worsens, the person feels tired, starts sweating, and has unsteady movements.

“When the shivering stops and the person is still exposed to the cold, this is a sign that they are running out of fuel for the body to work on,” she said. “The person can become confused.”

In severe cases, a person can die of hypothermia — this is often referred to as a death because of “exposure.”

Air temperature, exposure to moisture, and a person’s body size and overall health all affect how quickly a person can be affected by hypothermia, Wheeler said. Treatment starts by getting the person to a warm place and medical attention as soon as possible.

People can take steps to reduce the risk of hypothermia by wearing layers of clothing, avoiding exposed skin in cold conditions, staying hydrated, and limiting time in the cold, she said.

Treating winter illnesses

Another item of winter health importance Wheeler is concerned about is people incorrectly treating colds and coughs.

“A lot of people are taking medications for cough and colds, but if they don’t know the ingredients of the product they are taking, it can actually be dangerous,” she said.

Only a few decongestants don’t increase blood pressure, Wheeler said. If a person with high blood pressure takes the wrong decongestant, they can increase their risk of a stroke or heart attack.

“Another problem is accidentally taking too much acetaminophen, aka Tylenol,” she said. “A lot of cough and cold medications have acetaminophen in them, but if the person does not realize this and takes more acetaminophen for pains, they can actually do serious liver damage.”

Wheeler said it’s more important for patients to know the ingredients of medications they take than the brand name, and to take only medications that address their symptoms: decongestants to open up a stuffed up nose, antihistamines to dry up a runny nose. Expectorants can loosen up thick, heavy congestion, but so can a humidifier at home.

Wheeler recommends people talk to their pharmacist or health care provider about what medications are safe for them and what other medications they may be taking.

“It is sometimes easier to have the patient bring in all the over-the-counter meds they are taking so we can go over it at their office visit,” she said.

She added that it isn’t safe to give adult cold medicines to children, even in smaller doses. Adult cold medicine can make a child or baby too sleepy and can even result in a child’s breathing stopping.

 

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