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5 Surprising Winter Ailments and How to Prevent Them

The flu. A fall on the ice. Frostbite. We all know about these common winter medical ailments. But there are others doctors see each year that may surprise you. Experts at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) talk about five cold-weather health issues and offer tips on how to prevent them.

1. Cold Medicine Confusion

Women looking for medication at store pharmacyJust because many cough and cold medicines are available over-the-counter doesn't mean they are appropriate for everyone. Dr. Suzanne Salamon, Associate Chief of Clinical Geriatrics at BIDMC, says in the senior population, seemingly harmless cold and cough medicines can cause problems. "This is a population that is typically on many prescription medications and there can be interactions," she notes. "Adding a cough or cold medicine to this can cause confusion, high blood pressure, urine retention, worsening of glaucoma, delirium and even hallucinations." Dr. Salamon says these over-the-counter remedies should be used cautiously and in reduced doses. "Seniors should check with their doctors before grabbing one of these off the drug store shelf."

2. Shoveling Injuries -- Even for Mr. Incredible

Post-storm shoveling, especially when the snow is wet and heavy, is a leading cause of back injury. But what is surprising, says Dr. John Keel, medical director of the Spine Center at BIDMC, is many of these injuries occur in young people who are in good shape. "Even for those who work out regularly, the body isn't accustomed to the unique movements associated with snow shoveling," says Dr. Keel. He suggests you warm your body up before hand inside, doing some basic stretching before your back hits the cold air.

Snow shoveling"Also, PUSH the snow away straight ahead, don't bend and twist with your back. Many injuries occur by trying to throw heavy snow off to the side. Also, you are not in a race. If you have to lift, lift only small amounts at a time, and do the bending and lifting with your legs," suggests Dr. Keel.

3. Breaking Your Fall

When you lose your balance and feel yourself tumbling to the ground, it's natural to put your arm out. The result of falling on an outstretched hand can be a broken wrist. "When you start to fall, there are three parts of the body that will likely take the initial impact - the head, the hip or the wrist," says Dr. Charles Day, Chief of Hand Surgery at BIDMC. "While none of these is a good option, the least serious injury would be to the wrist."

Young boy slipping on iceMost wrist fractures happen in the winter - for two reasons. First, there is an increase in slips because of ice, especially in older people. "We see this frequently, not on the day of a storm, but a few days afterwards when people have their guards down," explains Dr. Day, who notes that seniors, especially women, are more prone to fractures because of an increased risk of osteoporosis (thinner bones). "They'll be carrying groceries like they normally would and forget that there can be slippery patches on the ground." Dr. Day suggests using a grocery cart when possible, taking smaller and slower steps and simply not trying to carry too many things at once so you can always see where you are stepping.

Secondly, winter sports, such as snowboarding, can result in wrist injuries. Dr. Day says in addition to wearing a helmet, all snowboarders should wear wrist-guards.

4. Igniting Breathing Issues

Couple playing cards in front of fireplaceRespiratory illnesses, brought on by colds and the flu, are common in the winter. But not all breathing problems are caused by viral or bacterial infections. "Many people suffer with symptoms caused by indoor pollution," says Dr. Jacques Carter, a primary care physician at BIDMC. "The respiratory impact of pollutants from the misuse of malfunctioning combustion devices such as stoves, heaters, fireplaces and chimneys is often overlooked." Dirty fireplaces can not only cause chimney fires, he says, but also inhibit the proper venting of smoke up the flue and thereby lead to breathing issues. "Symptoms may be caused by both fumes and particulate matter, such as soot and ash," he adds. Make sure you have your fireplace cleaned and heaters serviced regularly.

5. Extended Celebration

Office partyWe all know that with the holidays comes parties, celebrations… and weight gain. But this "gift" of extra pounds keeps on giving past the holiday season, according to Liz Moore, RD, nutritionist in the CardioVascular Institute at BIDMC. "Often, overeating and the choice of fatty, sugary foods, and alcohol lasts through Valentine's Day," she notes, in part because of the colder weather. "People tend to crave comfort foods and have trouble breaking the habits they fall into during December." She also says the advertisements for Valentine's candy that start up in January doesn't help! " I try to advise people to focus on healthy habits through this time. Think of it as a New Year-and a new pattern of eating right." In terms of Valentine's Day, she suggests it's fine to treat yourself to some chocolate on February 14th, just don't overdo it. "Instead of giving your sweetie a huge box of candy, schedule a nice dinner out and split a chocolate dessert!"

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted January 2011

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