Winter and its cold weather can bring with it a variety of health concerns — including colds, flu, frostbite and Raynaud’s syndrome.
Dr. Ryan Sundermann, the emergency room medical director at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, says the two biggest issues the ER sees during the winter are hypothermia — where your body temperature falls below normal, leading to shivering, slurred speech and a weak pulse — and chilblains. Chilblains, usually seen on the hands, feet, nose or ears, are skin ulcers or red patches caused by inflammation of the small blood vessels. They can cause painful swelling, itching and burning. “Sometimes it happens to kids who are outside sledding too long and their gloves or inside
of their boots get wet. Or construction workers or city workers who spend significant time outside,” Sundermann said.
“They’ll notice it over the next couple of days after they’ve warmed back up, with scaly fingers and toes, red or sloughing-off skin. Chilblains are not deeply penetrating like frostbite, but more a surface-freeze issue.”
St. Luke’s uses several rewarming methods. One is a “bear hugger,” which looks like a pool lounger but covers your whole body and has constantly circulating hot air. Patients also can be treated with heated IV fluids and with whirlpool therapy, with constantly circulating 40-degree water.
“Most cases of weather-related issues we see are due to prolonged exposure,” Sundermann said. “Most susceptible are the elderly. They might be up early feeding the birds or getting the paper and fall, and then nobody finds them until 5 or 6 at night.”
Dr. Brad Wisnousky, who has been an emergency room doctor at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids for 20 years, agrees that older people are most at risk when the weather turns cold, even while inside their own homes.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“Even when it’s 40 or 50 degrees outside, they may have inadequate heat inside the home because they’re trying to save money,” Wisnousky said. “People can also have a different response to their medicine when it’s cold out.”
He advises keeping an eye on older family members during the winter. If they seem confused or their activity or behavior changes, have them checked, he advised. While frostbite and chilblains are more serious examples of winter’s health hazards, many people will end up having what Dr. David Knutson, from Dermatology Clinic of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, calls “winter itch.”
Dry patches, commonly on the knuckles or shins, can be itchy and bothersome. “Skin definitely gets beat up in the wintertime,” Knutson said. “I’ve seen a lot of winters here,” Knutson said. “Top of the list in winter is dry skin. The medical term is ‘xerosis.’ ”People make the mistake of not using a different soap in the wintertime, he said.
“In the hot and humid Iowa summers, you can get away with an inexpensive bar of soap,” he said. “In the wintertime, when the air has less moisture, you need to switch to a gentle skin cleanser.”
Dandruff also can be a problem. Even if other shampoos work the rest of the year, switching to a dandruff shampoo or washing your hair less frequently in the winter can resolve that issue.
Knutson also advises a daily application of lotion, either a thick cream with a Vaseline base or, for those who prefer plant-based products, a lotion made with coconut oil or shea butter.
“Lotion on skin is a lot like flossing your teeth. You should do it every day, but many people don’t,” Knutson said.
“The thicker the better. I’m definitely a fan of bland. Anything that’s scented, when you put it on dry, chapped skin, it will irritate it and cause it to itch.”
Protect yourself from the cold
During the winter, doctors advise:
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
• Dress in warm layers: Instead of cotton, wool is an excellent thermal barrier.
• Stay dry: Try not to sweat, or if you do, change your clothes. Wet clothes exponentially increase heat loss.
• Don’t drink alcohol: It can trick you into thinking you’re warmer than you really are. It dehydrates your body and makes it less adept at handling temperature change.
• Keep covered: Wrap up, especially your extremities, like hands, feet and nose. Wear a scarf, hat and gloves to protect yourself.