Tips to keep you healthy through the winter

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published December 18, 2023
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Key Takeaways

Winter should come as no surprise to anyone living in the temperate and polar zones. Every year, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere brave three months of ice, snow, and frigid temperatures. And although we’ve now passed the winter solstice—which marks the beginning of lengthening days and shortening nights—there’s still plenty left of Old Man Winter’s bluster.

As you navigate the freezing temps and icy blasts of winter, there’s a lot to remember in terms of staying healthy and safe. Here are a few tips to incorporate into your winter routine until the March equinox heralds the beginning of spring.

Stay physically active

Despite the strong urge we all have to curl up on the couch on those cold winter days, we all need to keep physically active. If you already have a workout routine, try to stick to it. If you must, exercise at home instead of the gym. Exercise strengthens your immune system and lowers your stress levels. Stress can make it harder for us to fight off infections, like a cold or the flu, which are especially prevalent during the winter months.

And there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy in the winter. Skiing (downhill and cross-country), ice skating, sledding, snowboarding, and even winter hikes are some of the best parts of winter. Find something you like, and get outside and get active whenever you can.

But remember, if it’s very cold, wet, or windy, limit your time outdoors. Pay particular heed to the predicted RealFeel temperature, an index that takes into account what the temperature really feels like via a unique composite of the temperature, wind, humidity, sunshine intensity, cloudiness, precipitation, and elevation on the human body.

And while you’re outside, remember to take it easy with the shoveling. Numerous studies over the past decades have linked shoveling snow with many coronary events, including takotsubo cardiomyopathy and sudden cardiac death. In one of the more recent studies, researchers found that a family history of premature cardiovascular disease and male sex were strongly associated with snow-shoveling-related acute coronary syndromes.

If you have any conditions that may put you at a higher risk of a heart attack—including an inactive lifestyle—go easy. Work slowly and take a break when you feel out of breath. The high level of activity shoveling requires plus the cold temperatures outside can put you at an increased risk.

Get a flu shot

The CDC recommends a yearly flu shot for everyone aged 6 months and older.  For the 2019-2020 flu season, the CDC recommends the administration of trivalent vaccines containing the following:

  • A/Brisbane/02/2018 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus (updated)

  • A/Kansas/14/2017 (H3N2)-like virus (updated)

  • B/Colorado/06/2017-like (Victoria lineage) virus

For quadrivalent vaccines, the recommendation is for the three viruses above plus B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (Yamagata lineage) virus.

Treat hypothermia and frostbite immediately

Always treat hypothermia and frostbite immediately. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temp drops to below 95 °F. Frostbite, on the other hand, occurs due to the freezing of the skin and underlying tissue. Of note, even skin that is protected can get frostbitten—it’s the most common injury caused by severe cold. At the first sign of any cold injury, remove any wet clothing, and move the person to a protected environment. According to a recent article in American Family Physician, patients experiencing either hypothermia or frostbite should be taken to facilities where rapid rewarming, imaging, and thrombolytic treatment are available. 

Wash your hands regularly

A simple, basic tenet of infectious disease control is regular handwashing. According to the CDC, handwashing can reduce the incidence of respiratory infections in the general population by 16% to 21%.

Eat right

Eating right is a must to stay healthy all winter long, and with the holiday season past us, it may be easier to do so. Here are a few tips on which food choices may help you stay healthy.

  • Eat more fiber. Soluble fiber can help boost your immune system and decrease inflammation. Apples, oats, and nuts can provide a lot of soluble fiber.

  • Eat more dark green and orange vegetables. Deep orange vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash varieties, provide vitamin C and beta carotene, both of which are important to many bodily functions and immune health. Both dark green and orange vegetables are rich in antioxidants and carotenoid compounds, including beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin. Dark green vegetables are also an important source of folate, which is a B vitamin that offers many protective health benefits for your body. Spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are just a few examples of dark green vegetables that can keep your immune system going through the infectious challenges we all face every winter—ie, colds and the flu.  

  • Spice up your cooking. Adding spices to your regular dishes can be a great way to boost your immune function. Turmeric, for example, contains curcumin, which has been shown to help fight inflammation and heart disease and acts as a strong antioxidant. Moreover, ginger has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties and contains sesquiterpenes that have been shown to target cold viruses. Furthermore, garlic was shown to reduce the number of study participants with a cold by 63% in a 12-week study.

Get enough sleep

Did you know well-rested people who get the flu vaccine often go on to develop better immunity against the flu than those who are sleep deprived? Indeed, it has been clinically shown that a lack of sleep could jeopardize the effectiveness of vaccines. Sleep is especially important in the winter when the cold temperatures, drastic changes in climate, increased physical requirements of just getting around can use up all of your energy. Fight the urge to stay up late bingeing on your favorite Netflix series or HBO blockbuster. Get your sleep!

Winter is a beautiful season, but it can take a toll on your health. Remember these tips, and try to incorporate them into your winter routine to stay healthy and better enjoy the season to the fullest.

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