How does cold weather affect your health?

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Published: November, 2014

Your immune system, skin, balance, and heart may be at risk.

As temperatures drop in the winter, weather-related health problems start to rise. "The cold weather brings a number of risks, especially for older adults," says geriatrician Dr. Suzanne Salamon, an instructor at Harvard Medical School. Here are some of the ways you may be vulnerable this winter, and how to fight back.

At risk: Immune system

During winter months, people spend more time inside and in close contact with each other, such as in stores, malls, and restaurants. This means that the flu, coughs, and colds are more easily spread.

What you can do: "Get a flu shot, wash your hands frequently with soap and water or hand sanitizer, and cough and sneeze into the crook of your elbow, not your hands," says Dr. Salamon.

At risk: Heart

Cold weather acts as a vasoconstrictor, which means it narrows blood vessels. This raises the risk of heart attack.

What you can do: Dress warmly when going out, with a hat, gloves, and a warm coat. Don't do any strenuous activity outdoors that may stress your heart, such as shoveling snow.

At risk: Balance

Icy sidewalks can make falling easier, putting you at risk for fractures.

What you can do: Avoid slippery surfaces if possible. Wear shoes or boots with heavily textured soles that can grip surfaces. Use handrails, even if you feel you don't need one.

At risk: Skin

Dry winter air can suck the moisture from your skin.

What you can do: Use a moisturizer with an oil base to block evaporation. Shower in lukewarm—not hot—water. Use a humidifier to replenish moisture to the skin's top layer.

At risk: Body temperature

Older adults are at risk for hypothermia, in which the body's internal temperature falls too low. "Even prolonged exposure to mild cold can cause it," says Dr. Salamon.

What you can do: Bundle up if you're going outside, and be aware of signs that your body isn't handling the cold well, such as stiffness in the neck, arms, and legs. Call 911 if you suspect you or someone you know is suffering from hypothermia. 

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