If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
From dry air that weakens your skin and immune system to frigid temperatures that constrict your blood vessels, cold weather can increase your risk of common health conditions.
It’s important to be mindful of safety as you prepare for winter fun. The better you plan to prevent winter health problems, the less likely you are to spend this time of year visiting urgent care or being confined to the couch with an injury. Start with these six tips for a safe, healthy winter.
1. Protect your heart from extra stressors.
Studies have shown that cardiac deaths increase around the winter holidays—likely because of less sleep, healthy eating, and exercise—including strenuous activities such as shoveling.
But the cold itself actually poses the biggest risk to your heart. Low temperatures increase the risk of heart attacks by putting extra stress on the heart. In reaction to the cold, your blood vessels constrict to conserve body heat. This increases your blood pressure, which adds stress to your heart. Your blood platelets also start to clump, raising the risk of a blood clot.
The extra strain can be too much for the heart to handle, especially for people who don’t exercise regularly; are an advanced age; or have high blood pressure, heart disease, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, or a history of smoking.
Here are some ways to lower the stress on your heart:
- Dress warmly when you go outside. Boots, thick socks, multiple layers, hat, scarf, mittens—wear it all.
- Exercise safely. Maintain an exercise routine if you regularly work out. Avoid strenuous activities if you’re mostly sedentary, but talk with your doctor about how to incorporate moderate exercise into your weekly routine.
- Eat a healthy diet. People who eat a diet low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables are less likely to develop heart disease.
- Limit alcohol and don’t use tobacco. These substances increase the risk of high blood pressure.
If you notice symptoms of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately. These include pain in the chest, back, neck, jaw, or abdomen; shortness of breath; fatigue; dizziness; indigestion; heartburn; and nausea.
2. Avoid frostbite by limiting exposure to the elements.
In cold weather below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, your body tissues can freeze—including skin and bone. Known as frostbite, this condition can occur anytime. Your risk increases the colder the temperature is and the longer you’re outside.
Damage from frostbite usually begins before you can feel it, but symptoms to watch out for include:
- Hard or waxy skin
- Skin color changes
The best way to prevent frostbite is to stay indoors when it’s extremely cold. If work or other commitments require you to go outside:
- Wear several layers of loose, warm clothing.
- Limit the amount of time you’re outside.
- Change out of wet or cold clothes immediately—especially hats, gloves, and socks.
If you think you might have a frostbite injury, seek care right away. It can be treated—and the sooner the better to avoid surgery or amputation.
Related reading: Follow These 5 Tips for Healthy Skin
3. Stay safe during winter sports.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 200,000 people receive medical treatment for injuries from winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and sledding. Common injuries include sprains, dislocations, and fractures.
You can avoid injury on snow and ice by:
- Being honest with yourself about your fitness and skill level. Don’t be embarrassed to ski on the beginner hill or skate slowly near the ice rink wall.
- Renting equipment that fits properly.
- Staying aware of your surroundings to avoid collisions.
- Aiming to land on your rear when falling. It has more padding and is more likely to bruise than sprain.
- Sledding feet-first, away from busy roads or parking lots, while wearing a helmet.
You’re likely to feel achy after your first couple of activities if you don’t participate in them year-round. But if your pain lasts more than a couple days, seek medical attention to avoid worsening an injury.
Related reading: 7 Common Sports Injuries and How to Prevent Them
4. Prevent dry, itchy skin.
Low humidity, harsh winds, and dry indoor heat can strip your skin of its natural moisture. Dry skin isn’t necessarily harmful. But it can be painful and lead to skin conditions, such as eczema, which are often mistaken for dry skin because peeling or flaking are common symptoms.
Skin redness or itching in addition to seasonal dryness and flaking might indicate a more serious skin condition. If you experience these symptoms, see a dermatologist who can recommend an individualized treatment plan.
Instead of waiting for symptoms, take a proactive approach to managing dry skin:
- Avoid using antibacterial and detergent-based soap, as well as any personal product containing fragrance. These products often are made with skin-drying ingredients.
- Skip lotion and apply fragrance-free creams or ointment to damp skin after bathing. Use products containing ceramide, an ingredient that helps protect your skin barrier. Don’t forget to moisturize your palms and the bottoms of your feet; painful cracks often form in these areas when dry.
- Routinely apply hand cream after washing or sanitizing your hands. Good hand hygiene is important, but it requires lots of moisturizing.
- Wear sunscreen. The sun might not be shining as often, but UV rays are still able to dry out and burn your skin.
Related reading: 7 Simple Ways to Protect Your Skin in the Sun
5. Seek treatment for seasonal depression.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) impacts about 5% of US adults for 40% of each year. Often referred to as the “winter blues,” it is associated with a chemical imbalance in the brain that occurs when people are exposed to less daylight.
Many people who experience symptoms, such as constant sadness, a loss of interest in hobbies and activities, appetite and sleep changes, and difficulty thinking, brush them off as “normal” for this time of year or try to convince themselves they feel fine.
But seasonal depression is not just in your head; it’s a type of clinical depression that can and should be treated. If you stop feeling like yourself during the cold weather months, see your primary care provider. They can prescribe medications, help you make lifestyle changes, or refer you to a behavioral health specialist for more in-depth treatment.
Related reading: How to Spot Depression and Anxiety in Teens
6. Stop the spread of viral infections.
Viral respiratory infections spike during the winter because many spread easily through the air. In winter, people tend to spend more time together in smaller, indoor spaces. These include:
Respiratory infections affect everyone differently. Your minor cold symptoms could cause a severe reaction in someone else, which is why it’s so important to reduce germ exposure.
To help prevent these infections from spreading:
- Get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu.
- Consistently wash your hands.
- Wear a mask around others, even if you are fully vaccinated.
- Stay home and isolate if you feel sick.
- Get enough sleep and exercise.
- Eat a balanced diet.
Enjoy the season!
Winter can be a beautiful time of year. Just make sure to take proper precautions when spending time outside during these colder months and get vaccinated to protect yourself and everyone around you.