Health Features

Holly Jolly and Healthy

For all of the fun that comes with winter (sledding, holiday parties, snow days), it’s also a time of year that brings its fair share of health hiccups. From runny noses to freezing temps, we often feel less than our best. We talked with local experts to find out how you can stay healthy and happy despite the winter chill.

sinus problems
For many of us, we know it’s winter when our noses start running or our sinuses get congested. It’s as clear a marker of the season as sleigh bells and snow days. We can thank cooler, drier air for some of our seasonal nasal woes, according to Dr. James Gould of St. Louis Sinus Center. “Some patients are more bothered in the winter because the colder, less humid air dries the nose out,” he says. “The mucous lining gets cracked and dried, making it susceptible to irritants, colds and allergies.” This also can make people susceptible to viruses and bacteria. He suggests using humidifiers in the home to address the problem and consulting a doctor if you exhibit cold-like symptoms for longer than 10 days, as it may be a sinus infection.

While we may think of them as more prevalent in the spring, allergens also abound in the winter. Since most people keep their houses closed, pet dander and dust mites are common problems, according to Dr. Mark Dykewicz, a SLUCare allergist. Addressing pet dander can be especially important during the holiday season, he says, since pets are kept inside more. “Research has shown that you can have an allergic reaction from indirect exposure to cat allergens,” Dykewicz notes. So relatives and friends with pets may bring the allergens to you. He recommends using a nasal cromolyn spray before exposure to prevent symptoms like a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, itching and post-nasal drip. Other holiday allergy hazards? Christmas trees! They can bring in mold that can cause allergic reactions. “Buy as fresh a tree as possible, and avoid any that have been transported in a burlap sack,” Dykewicz suggests.

Winter allergy and sinus problems are addressed with the same over-the-counter products and prescriptions used at other times of the year, according to Gould. Dykewicz agrees that products such as saline solutions (delivered in sprays or via a Neti pot), antihistamines and nasal steroids can offer relief.

For chronic sinus infections, Gould recommends balloon sinus dilation. “It’s a nonsurgical intervention that only takes 10 minutes,” he says. “It establishes more air space in the nose so the area that might become swollen doesn’t completely close off and develop an infection.” For allergies, he suggests sublingual immunotherapy, a treatment that involves putting an allergy droplet or dissolving tablet under your tongue to develop blocking antibodies.

Sometimes our sniffles can turn into something more serious. Winter is a time when bacterial and viral infections are common. “Colds run rampant during the winter because people are staying indoors more and there’s a lack of ventilation,” Gould says. These conditions make it easy to transfer germs, including potentially harmful bacteria and viruses, he explains. But don’t start sequestering yourself just yet!

Three easy ways to minimize the impact of germs:
1. Don’t Touch Your Face
Research estimates we touch our faces about 16 times every three hours, giving viruses and bacteria on our hands access to our eyes, nose and mouth.

2. Wash Your Hands
Mom was right all along. Washing your hands means it’s less likely you’re going to transfer bacteria or viruses into your body. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a five-step method:
1. Wet your hands with clean, running water, then turn off the tap.
2. Lather both sides of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails with soap.
3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. (If you need a timer, sing or hum “Happy Birthday” twice).
4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or let them air dry.

3. Get Your Shots
Staying up-to-date on vaccinations will prompt your immune system to produce antibodies that protect you from disease. We may think they’re only for kids, but the CDC recommends people over the age of 21 get a flu shot every year and get Td/Tdap, chicken pox and MMR vaccines if they are due or were never vaccinated as a child.

winter workouts
When it’s cold out and the days are shorter, it’s often easier to snuggle up on the couch and  forgo your daily exercise routine. But don’t let winter winds keep you inside. Staying active and getting outdoors can have major benefits, including your quality of sleep, according to Dr. Alpana Chandra, a pulmonologist at Mercy Hospital. “The less active we are, the less refreshing and satisfying our sleep is,” she says. “During the winter, it’s best to keep going outside like you normally do.”

combat the cold
Layer Up:
Your dress code for winter workouts should have at least three layers.
1. Start with a snug, breathable shirt that wicks sweat from the skin; avoid cotton since it traps moisture and can lose its insulating powers when wet.
2. For added insulation, add a fleece or wool top.
3. Top everything off with a jacket that resists wind but is still breathable.
* Don’t forget a hat and gloves, and consider a ski mask if it’s below freezing.

Don’t Sweat the Cold: Don’t start your workout feeling warm and toasty; it’s better to feel a little cool. You’ll start to warm up once you get moving, and you don’t want to overheat or soak your gear with sweat.

Embrace Winter Activities: Despite our proclivities to stay indoors, winter offers some great outdoor activities. Consider ice skating, skiing (both cross-country and downhill), sledding, snowboarding or even having a snowball fight with the kids. And hey, it may not be fun, but shoveling snow from the drive or sidewalk is its own workout!

Tackle Snow Smartly: While snow can make for a fun time, it may derail your usual routine, especially if you’re a runner. But don’t let a little white stuff scare you off! Here are some important things to remember:
1. Wear a trail-running shoe with deeper treads, or use winter cleats that slip over your usual
running shoes for improved traction.
2. Run more slowly and take shorter strides.
3. Avoid hills where you’re more likely to fall if you hit an icy patch.
4. Run immediately after a snowfall. If you wait until the next day, the snow could have frozen into hard-packed ice.

The days are shorter, and the nights are colder. What does that mean for our sleeping habits?  Our sleep cycle is dependent on our circadian rhythm, which responds to light-dark stimulus,” Chandra says. “Research shows this can make you more lethargic and depressed.” People are more likely to stay in bed longer, but the sleep isn’t necessarily more restful. “They often notice a change in the continuity of their sleep,” Chandra says. “Their sleep is fragmented. They go to bed earlier and may wake up earlier, but they often go back to sleep.” She explains that other seasonal changes affect the quality of our sleep, too. Overeating during the holidays, temperature fluctuations, inactivity and seasonal affective disorder all can make sleep less beneficial.

It’s not all bad news, however. Dr. Shalini Paruthi, a sleep specialist and co-director of St. Luke’s Sleep Medicine and Research Center, says the shorter days might help some people sleep better for longer periods since it gets darker earlier. And the gradual change in daylight hours helps our bodies adjust. “We have time to adapt; it doesn’t shock our systems,” she says.

Regardless of whether you sleep better or worse during the winter, Chandra and Paruthi have tips for regulating your schedule and getting restful sleep. “Be mindful that bad sleep habits are very easy to fall into and very difficult to get out of,” Chandra says. “The older we get, the more susceptible we are to bad habits, so it’s best to avoid them.”

Don’t Get Too Warm and Snuggly:  We sleep best at temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so don’t blast the heat or overload on blankets.

Bedtime Isn’t Screentime: Stay away from bright screens like phones, computers or TV when preparing to sleep.

Let There Be Light: To help us wake up in the morning, it’s important that we are exposed to bright light. Put your lights on a timer that syncs with your alarm clock.

Keep Your Routine: Stick to your usual bed and wake-up times. “Don’t stray more than an hour from your usual schedule, even on the weekend,” Paruthi says.

Watch What You Eat: Weight gain, eating too late and having your largest meal last can have negative impacts on your quality of sleep.

Additional sources: Consumer Reports, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Holly Jolly and Healthy
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Holly Jolly and Healthy
For all of the fun that comes with winter (sledding, holiday parties, snow days), it’s also a time of year that brings its fair share of health hiccups. From runny noses to freezing temps, we often feel less than our best. We talked with local experts to find out how you can stay healthy and happy despite the winter chill.
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