If the frost on the ground and the plummeting temperatures are any indication, winter has arrived. In addition to the usual winter health concerns, such as influenza and the risk of falls on icy sidewalks, we’re facing another winter in the midst of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD, offers these six tips for staying healthy this winter.
1. Prevent COVID-19 by getting vaccinated and following public health guidance.
As the pandemic rages on, the most important things you can do to protect yourself and others haven’t changed: Get vaccinated, wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet apart from other people while in public and clean your hands often.
You’ll also want to wash your hands and disinfect surfaces frequently to avoid getting other viruses that are prevalent in the winter, such as RSV. Washing your hands often with soap and water or using hand sanitizer can prevent germs from entering your body and making you sick. You should clean your hands before, during and after preparing food; before eating food; after going to the bathroom or helping a child go to the bathroom; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; before and after caring for someone who is sick; after touching an animal, pet food or animal waste; and after touching garbage.
2. Get your flu shot.
Nearly everyone should get the flu vaccine, especially this year. And it’s not too late to do so. The flu shot is recommended throughout the flu season. The timing of flu is unpredictable, and the virus can be detected year-round. However, seasonal flu activity often begins as early as October and continues through May.
Anyone ages 6 months and older should get the flu shot, except those with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine.
Because it is possible to get both the flu and COVID-19, public health experts are urging everyone to get the flu vaccine not only to protect themselves but also to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends the pneumonia vaccine for children younger than 2, adults 65 and older, and anyone with a chronic health condition. Immunosuppressed people, such as those with leukemia or HIV, should also be immunized. Ask your or your child’s healthcare provider about what is best for your situation.
3. Protect your heart.
As the temperatures drop, the rates of heart disease rise. But there are steps you can take to protect your heart. These include:
- Finding opportunities to reduce your stress whenever you can: High stress levels elevate your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. These elevated levels in turn can trigger a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack. It’s difficult to reduce stress, but lifestyle measures such as exercise and adequate sleep can help, as can embracing mindfulness. If your stress feels unmanageable, talk to your doctor or find a therapist.
- Practicing moderation when it comes to food and drink: Eating a diet high in saturated or trans fats is linked to heart disease, and too much salt and alcohol can raise your blood pressure, which also taxes your heart. Chronically elevated blood pressure means your heart has to work harder than it should to circulate blood throughout your body.
- Being careful when exerting yourself outdoors: Cold air may make your arteries constrict, which can decrease blood flow and the delivery of oxygen to your heart. Shoveling snow can be an especially dangerous activity; don’t overdo it, and ask for help if needed.
4. Wear layers when outdoors.
Even in colder temperatures, try to spend at least a little time outside every day. Exposure to sunlight and fresh air is important for your mental health and can help prevent seasonal affective disorder.
It’s important to wear layers when you go outside. Layering can prevent dangerous exposure by helping to maintain your core body heat and protecting you from cold air and snow.
“Layers are always a good idea, and the most vulnerable parts of your body are your fingers and toes and nose, so make sure you have a pair of gloves available and socks,” Dr. Ruff says. “It’s not a bad idea, especially if there’s going to be ice and snow, to keep an extra pair of socks, a hat, coat, boots and a blanket in your car so if you do get stuck and you have to walk somewhere, you’re not out without your outerwear.”
If you have little ones, a good rule of thumb is to dress them in one more layer than you’re comfortable in—both inside and outside.
“If you’re wearing a long-sleeved shirt, then you probably want to put a sweater on them,” Dr. Ruff says. “Or if you’re fine outside without a coat, they probably need a coat.”
However, winter coats should not be worn underneath a car seat harness because that can leave the harness too loose to be effective in a crash.
“Remember that when you buckle a child in their car seat, they should never have the puffy jacket—it should just be a very thin sweater, sweatshirt, and then you put a blanket on top,” Dr. Ruff says. “You can put the puffy jacket on when they get out of the car seat, because if you were in a car accident, that extra room from the jacket can cause a lot more damage to the child.”
5. Before driving, keep an eye on the weather.
Although you cannot control the weather, take it into consideration before driving. Try to make sure roads are in good condition before you get behind the wheel.
If the temperature is near freezing, precipitation is expected and you must go out, watch out for icy conditions and slow down. Black ice is transparent and thin, so it can be very difficult to see. If black ice is present, however, the roadway may be darker in some spots and lighter in others. Remember to be especially careful on bridges and overpasses.
Keep an ice scraper in your car and make sure you can see out all your windows before you start driving, Dr. Ruff says.
6. Watch where you are going to avoid falling.
One common cause of winter injuries is falling on slippery surfaces.
“Be really careful where you step when it’s icy, because you can’t even see the black ice—it just looks like the street,” Dr. Ruff says.
Avoid carrying heavy loads that may cause you to lose balance, and take your time so you can watch where you are stepping.
Also, wear reflective gear when walking outside in the dark.
“Make sure you’re visible if it’s either approaching dark or dark, because cars are not always going to see you,” Dr. Ruff says.
To learn more about staying safe this winter, talk to your doctor or find one near you.
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