For many people, winter is a time for family get-togethers and cozy evenings cocooned from chilly winds. But unless a little care is taken, winter also can bring unpleasant experiences — like getting sick or being injured.
“Winter definitely is a difficult time of year from many perspectives,” says Sofia Mavasheva, MD, a specialist in internal medicine at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton (RWJUH Hamilton). Dr. Mavasheva says the biggest winter wellness challenges include staying active, maintaining good nutrition and, first and foremost, battling influenza.
Keep Flu at Bay. Behavioral changes stemming from cold weather cause some of the problems. “We spend more time indoors and keep our houses closed up — there’s no fresh air going through,” Dr. Mavasheva notes. “We’re in closed spaces with other people and end up sharing flu and other viruses with each other.”
Historically, seasonal flu cases peak in February. But December, January and March are also active months — and flu season can run from October to May. Vaccination is the first line of defense against flu and is recommended for everybody. “You need to be vaccinated,” Dr. Mavasheva says.
This is especially true for people at high risk for complications from flu. That includes those 65 and older, pregnant women, children younger than five and people of any age with a chronic medical condition, including asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Vaccinations take two weeks to start working and should be gotten as soon as flu starts spreading in a community. “We always tell patients to please vaccinate to reduce your exposure to the flu virus,” Dr. Mavasheva emphasizes.
After vaccination, hand washing is the next best way to prevent flu. “Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize,” Dr. Mavasheva says. “Clean hands are the key defense in dealing with the virus.”
If you do catch the flu, don’t give it to somebody else. “This virus gets from person to person via droplets in the air, which we’re all breathing together,” Dr. Mavasheva says. “If you’re sick, the best thing to do is not to go to work and share it with your coworkers.”
Stay Active. In addition to being prime time for flu, winter lends itself to inactivity. Daylight hours are fewer and temperatures are colder. It’s natural to want to stay inside where it’s warm. However, Dr. Mavasheva suggests pushing back against the impulse to lounge the winter away. “It’s good to stay in some sort of exercise program throughout the year,” she says. “A lot of people like to walk. Weather permitting, continue to do that. Just dress a little warmer.” You can also walk indoors at the mall. Not keen on walking? Try swimming laps in an indoor pool, taking a yoga class or using exercise equipment, such as a stationary bike or a rowing machine.
Eat Well. When snow blankets fields, locally grown produce naturally gets hard to find. But good nutrition is still important, so don’t skip the fruits and vegetables. Veggies imported from warmer climates are available year-round. “At least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, winter or not,” urges Dr. Mavasheva. “Try to stick to that as much as you can. That’s a source of fiber and vitamins that should not be neglected.”
One way to up your intake of vegetables this winter: Make some vegetable soup. Soups are a great cold-weather comfort food, and it’s easy to find healthy recipes online.
Avoid Accidents. The frozen precipitation that can make winter beautiful also makes it slippery. Walking is tricky on ice- and snow-covered walkways. As a result, emergency departments see more injuries from falls in winter than other seasons. “People fall, and often break bones,” Dr. Mavasheva says. “One has to use extra caution.” Otherwise, simply stepping out to get the morning newspaper can result in a trip to the emergency room.
To help prevent falls, shovel and treat sidewalks, driveways and steps promptly after snow. When visiting older friends and family, remember to check indoors and out for fall hazards around the home.
Taking these wellness tips to heart will help make this winter your healthiest yet.
Is it a Cold or the Flu? In most cases, it’s easy to tell the difference between a harmless cold and potentially dangerous flu. “Usually people use the phrase, ‘I feel like I was hit by a truck,’ to describe how they feel when they have the flu,” says Sofia Mavasheva, MD, a specialist in internal medicine at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton.
Along with common cold symptoms like sneezing, having a runny nose and coughing, flu sufferers generally have painful body aches and a high fever. Upper respiratory symptoms are noticeably worse, too. “You feel generally very miserable,” Dr. Mavasheva says. “This is not what you get with a slight cold. If you feel that way, most likely you have the flu. Get yourself to the doctor right away.”
Doctors can diagnose flu by swabbing a patient’s nose and testing for the virus. Often, they treat patients with an antiviral medication, which can help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms. If you suspect you have the flu, get to the doctor within 24 to 48 hours of when symptoms start. “The sooner we start treatment, the better,” Dr. Mavasheva says.