Winter is here and so are the cold temperatures. As most North Dakota natives and long-time residents know, the winter poses unique health and everyday challenges; however, for those new to North Dakota winters, let’s discuss some tips and tricks for staying healthy and safe. Winter can bring various health issues directly and indirectly related to the cold weather due to lifestyle changes. Challenges present themselves in the way you dress, the way you hydrate, the way you eat and the way the weather impacts your respiratory health and mental health.
Most would agree that the most obvious challenge in the winter is staying warm. Dressing appropriately for your health and comfort is important for all aspects of your health. When selecting the appropriate clothing for staying warm, layering is key. A common misconception is that thick warm layers are the answer, when actually thin layers are a better insulation. The thin layers trap warm air in between them, creating better insulation. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer to keep sweat away from your skin, add an insulating layer for warmth and finish with a waterproof and windproof outer layer. Also, be sure to include scarves, gloves, headwear and eyewear when you expect prolonged exposure to the elements. Scarves can be vital to both your skin and respiratory health.
Cold air can naturally cause respiratory problems in those with existing conditions and sometimes in those without them, and in North Dakota, the cold air can often drop into temperatures well below freezing. The cold air being breathed in can irritate and inflame pre-existing conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) making it more important to cover your face when exposed to extreme cold. The dry and cold air can cause airway constriction and lead to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Often the humidity decreases with the use of heaters as well; use a humidifier in your home to maintain indoor humidity levels at around 30-50%.
Along with the cold weather comes cold and flu season. Good personal hygiene such as washing your hands and covering your mouth while coughing are good ways to protect yourself and others from catching common illnesses such as the cold and flu. Another important way to protect yourself from the flu is to get an annual flu shot. Flu shots are formulated annually to combat the most common strains of flu predicted this year. Flu shots can be obtained from your primary care provider or your local health unit.
To schedule an appointment with Trinity Health to receive a flu shot call 701-857-2515 or call 701-857-5413 for pediatric flu shots. If you believe you have a cold or the flu, please cover your mouth and nose with a mask and schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or visit the Trinity Health FirstCare Walk-In Clinic located in the Trinity Health Medical Arts building at 400 Burdick Expressway East in Minot, ND.
While there are many physical challenges in the winter to contend with, there are also behavioral health challenges as well. The days grow shorter and the nights grow longer and then soon it’s dark arriving and leaving work. This can lead to a common issue known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. While there aren’t any concrete answers as to what exactly causes this seasonal depression there are ways to alleviate its effects, the most common is a happy light. A happy light, or any source of light with blue light, is thought to mimic the sunlight and stimulate the production of serotonin which is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being.
Craig Sawchuk, MD, a Mayo Clinic psychologist recommends using a 10,000–lux light box or lamp within the first hour of waking up for about 20 minutes.
“That tends to be about the sweet spot of exposure to that light. You want to make sure that the light is sitting about an arm’s length or so in front of you. You don’t have to stare directly at the light, but you want to keep your eyes open. So you could be doing things like having breakfast or a cup of coffee, watching TV, or working online,” says Dr. Sawchuk.
Socializing and practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques can also help with mental well-being during the winter. Whether it’s attending a local sporting event such as hockey, or hosting a game night with friends, socializing can be incredibly beneficial when normal outdoor activities are limited in the winter months. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can be simple or complex. An effective and simple technique is deep breathing. However, another technique that is seen by many as relaxing is exercise and physical activity.
Maintaining your physical fitness is proven to improve both your physical and mental well-being. Activities such as yoga, stretching and simple cardio can be done in the comfort of your own home if you aren’t a fan of going to the gym. Short daily exercises that are 30 minutes in length can stimulate feelings of accomplishment and happiness while combating seasonal weight gain and depression.
Eating healthily and hydrating properly are also key components of exercise and activity. It is tempting to eat an entire box of cookies and binge a season of your favorite show when it’s cold and gloomy outside but consistently doing this can lead to a sedentary lifestyle which increases health risks. Proper nutrition and hydration are important all year round but have an added importance in the winter months. A balanced diet of all food groups can improve your health and well-being; for example, eating warm nutrient-rich foods like soups, stews and chilis can double as both comfort food and excellent nutrient sources.
Hydration is especially important as your body is over 70% water. While it may not seem as large an issue since it’s not hot, this in turn makes it an even more important issue in the winter since feelings of thirst are usually associated with heat. If you’re engaging in winter sports or outdoor activities, drink water before, during and after to stay hydrated, especially when shoveling snow. Bundling up to stay warm is important to prevent the loss of heat and frostbite, although you still sweat under those layers and lose important electrolytes. In all, no matter what season or weather, staying hydrated is important to essential bodily functions so drink some warm tea, eat some soup or broth or find a water bottle with progress reminders.
Kayla Cole, RDN, LRD, dietitian at Trinity Health, states, “Think about what changes you want to make, pick one, and then make a plan. Don’t try to do everything at once. Set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant/Realistic, and Time-Bound) and remember, progress not perfection.”
Okay, so we’ve all probably felt that burning sensation of the warmth returning to our fingers and toes after shoveling the 34-foot wall of snow in front of our garages or at the end of our driveways. That feeling is good, it means your body is returning heat to those areas! It just means that you probably had a little frostnip.
Frostbite, like burns, has varying levels of seriousness ranging from frostnip and superficial frostbite to deep frostbite. Development of these levels depends on the time of exposure and temperature and location of the afflicted area. In general, frostnip can develop within just a few minutes to an hour in extremely cold and windy conditions and the most vulnerable areas are usually the fingers, toes, ears and nose. This means that even when taking a quick walk around the block or building a snowman with your family you need to ensure that you and your family are appropriately bundled up. Frostbite generally takes longer to develop compared to frostnip. In temperatures around freezing, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chill, frostbite can develop in about 30 minutes to an hour. In more severe cold conditions, which for North Dakota comes usually after the beginning of the year, frostbite can develop in as little as 10-15 minutes of exposure. Many factors influence the time it takes to develop frostnip and frostbite but general winter safety and awareness of time outside can help to prevent it.
Remember to dress appropriately and use layers as mentioned earlier. Use high-quality gloves, mittens, warm socks and insulated waterproof boots to protect your extremities. In extreme conditions, hand and foot warmers may be needed to provide additional warmth. It is important that you stay dry as moisture on the skin and clothing increases the risk of frostbite. If you experience symptoms of frostbite such as numbness, tingling, hardened or purple skin and even the complete loss of sensation in an area, seek warm shelter and medical attention immediately; frostbite often requires rewarming under medical supervision and even surgical intervention.
Travel often comes with challenges in the winter as well, from snowy and icy roads to extreme temperatures and wind chills. Traveling safely in the winter can be accomplished with a heightened sense of caution and preparedness. While most vehicles today are equipped with all-season tires, in extreme winter weather conditions, switching to a winter tire may be beneficial as the rubber in winter tires adheres better to ice and snow. However, just having snow or winter tires does not mean that your ability to stop or accelerate may not be impaired. Remember to brake slowly and earlier to prevent skidding and fishtailing. Also, always maintain a half tank of gas in the event you become stuck and need to maintain warmth in the vehicle.
An important piece of winter safety needed while traveling by vehicle is a winter survival kit. These kits can be used if you become stuck, and help may not be able to reach you immediately. These kits often include things such as blankets, a flashlight, non-perishable food, a first aid kit and a candle with matches. Traveling in extreme winter weather can be challenging, but with proper preparation, you can reduce the risks and ensure your health and safety. Always prioritize caution and stay informed about current conditions.
Winter can be particularly challenging for senior individuals and vulnerable populations. Seniors are at an increased risk of health challenges during the winter months due to potentially weakened immune systems and decreased circulation and metabolisms. Remember to keep yourself and seniors in your care warmly dressed and reduce the time of exposure to the cold when possible. Another hazard that anyone may encounter, but is increased in the senior population, is the risk of falls. Icy sidewalks and roads increase the risk of slips and falls, which can result in fractures, head injuries or other health issues. All individuals walking in these conditions should remember to keep their center of gravity over their feet and walk like a penguin as necessary.
“A leading cause of injury is falls, throughout the lifespan,” says Amber Emerson, RN, Trinity Health Injury Prevention Coordinator. “It is especially important that the elderly are extra careful and take steps to prevent falls, such as eliminating throw rugs, keeping clutter out of the way and keeping areas well lit.”
As we navigate the challenges of winter, we must prioritize our health and safety. The unique health concerns that accompany the colder months, from staying warm and dressing appropriately to protecting our respiratory health, require our attention and proactive measures. Moreover, as we address the physical aspects of winter safety, we must not forget the importance of mental well-being. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real concern, but with the right strategies, such as light therapy and social engagement, we can combat its effects. Physical activity, even within the comfort of our homes, plays a crucial role in maintaining both physical and mental health. And let’s not underestimate the significance of proper nutrition and hydration, which are essential for overall well-being, regardless of the season.
As we face the unique health challenges of winter, let’s remember that safety and well-being are paramount. By following these guidelines and taking precautions, we can enjoy the beauty of winter while staying healthy and safe.
Source information was partially obtained from the Mayo Clinic Care News Network.
Trinity Health is a proud member of the Mayo Clinic Care Network. Trinity Health and Mayo Clinic share the commitment that healthcare should be provided close to home whenever possible. We also share a common philosophy to improve the delivery of healthcare through high-quality, data-driven, evidence-based care and treatment. We are working with Mayo Clinic so you can benefit from leading medical expertise and physician collaboration while staying near your family, friends and home.