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Season's Hazards: Feeling Under the Weather?

February 7, 2011

By Christina Hennessy, The Stamford Advocate, Conn

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Are the sniffles, the flu and a few slips, too, getting to you? Blame it on the cold weather, which experts say can usher in many health problems.

Frostbite. Respiratory illnesses. Seasonal affective disorder. Carbon monoxide poisoning. Aches and sprains. These conditions, and others, can be brought on by a drop in the temperature and a coating of snow and ice on the ground.

"I think the No. 1 problem we see in this area of the country is upper respiratory illnesses and influenza," said Dr. John Janikas, director of the emergency department at Samaritan Hospital in Troy, N.Y. "We see a spike in coughs, sinus symptoms and sore throats. We`ve seen that for a couple of months, but it has gotten worse over the last month."

Environmental and physiological factors contribute to this increase, doctors said, not the least of which is a condition parents can spot a mile away -- cabin fever. "Because it is cold outside, people tend to spend more time indoors," said Dr. Michael Carius, chairman of Norwalk Hospital`s emergency department. "And cold, in general, lowers the body`s immune response, making one more vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections."

With doors and windows tightly shut, all kinds of germs -- viruses, bacteria and fungi -- enjoy long shelf lives. "Houses don`t generally breathe, so they just keep all that junk on the inside and it gets recirculated," Carius said.

A lack of humidity also contributes to the problem, experts said, since it causes nasal passages to dry. No mucus means no filter, and no first defense to catch germs. The bad news is that these colds tend to linger, sometimes up to a month. And unless they are bacterial, the best course of action is not a prescription of antibiotics, but rather rest, over-the-counter decongestants and preventative hygiene.

"If I could find the cure for the common cold, I`d be a billionaire," Janikas said. Until then, he said people need to follow some basic steps, such as washing their hands, sneezing or coughing into the crook of their arm or a tissue, and cleaning off office equipment that is shared by co-workers.

Of course, the cold weather can create more serious problems for those with underlying health issues, such as asthma, or who have compromised respiratory systems. For those people, and for anyone whose cold just will not go away, experts said to talk with your physician and stay on top of any health changes.

Another indoor danger is carbon monoxide poisoning, the frequency of which goes up at this time of year, said Dr. Chris Davison, the medical director of Greenwich Hospital`s emergency department. This odorless, colorless gas, which at certain levels can cause illness and death, is produced by heating systems, gas and wood-burning stoves, portable heaters and engines, and other objects.

Symptoms include "feeling dizzy or nauseous, having a mild headache ... in general not feeling well," Davison said. A good solution is a carbon monoxide detector, said Davison, who has them in his own home. "We have one in each bedroom."

Going out in the cold poses its own problems, too. The cold temperatures and high wind can be a dangerous combination, leading to frostbite -- tissue is damaged or destroyed, leading to loss of limbs and other extremities -- and hypothermia -- body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Both conditions are the result of the body losing heat faster than it can produce it.

Alcohol or substance use is a dangerous combination with the cold, too, since people not only exhibit poor judgment, but feel warmer than they actually are. When one drinks, the alcohol causes the body to dilate, rather than constrict, blood vessels, meaning more heat is lost. When one becomes hypothermic, "you lose body heat to the extent that the whole body cools down. If that goes on for too long, you can ultimately die from that," Carius said.

While everyone is susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia, the very young and the elderly should be particularly vigilant. Youngsters may not have the mobility to generate heat and may not recognize the risks -- a few more sled runs may win out over hands that are becoming numb. Older people typically cope with less insulation (because of less fat), a lower metabolic rate and a poorer circulation system, as well as side effects of certain medicines. "They may not feel they are getting colder or get that warning to stop ... and get to a warm area," said Dr. Steven Horowitz, chief of cardiology at Stamford Hospital.

The effects on cardiovascular health go beyond the warning of not overexerting oneself when shoveling or clearing ice. The cold has the effect of constricting arteries, which means the heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout the body, Horowitz noted. Certain conditions can be exacerbated, such as angina, which is severe chest pain due to lack of blood to the heart, since vessels already narrowed by plaque buildup now face further constriction. Blood pressure also can increase. "The concept is that a damaged heart may be OK under resting conditions, but it doesn`t have the reserves," Horowitz said.

A season of potential spills and chills could make anyone feel down, but for some, winter months can bring on more serious symptoms of depression. Referred to as seasonal affective disorder, it manifests itself in recurrent episodes of depression during the fall and winter. By the spring and summer, symptoms generally improve. As to the causes, some have cited shorter days and reduction in natural light, as well as hormonal changes.

"It is more than simply feeling down," said Dr. Katherine Michael, the chairwoman of Norwalk Hospital`s department of psychiatry. "The main thing is to notice the symptoms," Michael said. "If they begin to impact the person`s life ... then you can begin to get worried." She said you want to watch and listen for severe symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts, but that there can be other signs, too, such as a reluctance to go to work or school, an inability to finish schoolwork and other actions that begin to impact a person`s life. Treatment can include light therapy and short-term antidepressants.

Although there are dangers, those interviewed said the good news is that vigilance can be the best medicine when it comes to dealing with winter`s health hazards. People can still go out and exercise, can run errands, can clear cars and sidewalks of snow, go sledding with their kids, and enjoy the joys of the season, as long as they take extra care to protect their health.

"First and foremost, the No. 1 thing is to be appropriately dressed," Davison said, noting that in extreme cold it can take only minutes for the cold to start damaging skin. That thin, jersey hoodie is not going to cut it when the temperature dips and the wind begins to howl. "A lot of it is judgment," Davison added.

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Story image: Cars are buried as a woman tries to clear her windshield in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Copyright(c) 2011, The Stamford Advocate, Conn.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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