Freezing temperatures, icy winds and slippery snow aren’t just bone-chilling: They can also wreak havoc on your body in surprising—and avoidable—ways. From sadness to eye strain, backaches to foot pain, here are seven ways that the winter can make your body ache, and what to do to feel better fast.
1. Dry winter air
Is there a more frustrating—and uncomfortable—winter woe than dry skin? Our skin is hydrated in two ways: from the healthy fats and water we ingest and by drawing in moisture from the air. But when the air gets drier, there’s less for your skin and lips to absorb, making chapped, flaky skin seem all but inevitable. Licking your lips makes the problem worse, and can trigger other issues, such as painful cold sores. What’s worse, rough, dehydrated skin can ultimately crack or bleed if it’s not cared for correctly, leading the way to a potential infection.
The Fix: “Develop the habit of caring for your skin on a daily basis,” says Dr. Barbara Doty, a family physician based in Wasilla, Alaska, and an American Academy of Family Physicians board member. “Have easy access to lip balm, use a good moisturizer—especially after showering or bathing—and avoid excessive use of soap.” Moisturizer doesn’t just soften your dry skin; it helps fight inflammation caused by winter weather, which keeps it healthier.
2. Shoveling snow
Anyone who’s been through a snowy winter knows that moving the white stuff can cause back, shoulder, and chest pain. And the wetter the show is, the heavier it gets. “Shoveling puts strain on your heart,” says Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, a board-certified internal medicine doctor based in Atlanta, Ga., and a past president of the American College of Physicians. “If you have heart problems, get someone else to do it for you.” But all of us should be careful: there are about 11,500 people treated for snow-shoveling injuries each year, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.
The Fix: If you have to shovel, be sure to wear a hat, gloves, and waterproof shoes—and use your legs, rather than your back, when you bend down to clear it. “It’s best to push snow rather than lift it—and try to get an ergonomically designed shovel,” says Fryhofer. An ergonomic shovel is lightweight with a curved shaft, which will help you keep your back upright.
“There’s a lot of weight at the end of the shovel, which is not close to your body,” says Doty. “Pick up smaller [portions] of the snow, which will give you less weight per shovel.” Also, try to shovel in both directions—people tend to shovel in one direction repetitively across the body, which can cause strain.
3. Dimmer days
One surprising side effect or shorter—and grayer—days? Headaches, which are a potential sign of seasonal affective disorder, says Dr. Laura Knobel, a family doctor in Walpole, Mass., and a member of the board of directors for the American Academy of Family Physicians. Changes in barometric pressure, which occur when a storm is moving in or away from you—not to mention simply very cold weather—can also trigger migraines in some people, says Knobel. Finally, less sunlight also means less vitamin D. D deficiency has been linked to an increase in headaches in the fall and winter, say researchers in a recent Journal of Headache and Pain study.
The Fix: “If the headaches are due to a lack of sun, natural spectrum lights can make a big difference for some people,” says Knobel, because these lights best mimic natural daylight. Using garden-grow lights to cultivate plants indoors can also provide relief, especially if you have the winter blues. “Seeing the seedlings grow can give you hope that spring is on its way,” she adds.
You may faithfully tote around a water bottle during warmer months, but remember that staying hydrated in the winter is just as important. “People don’t drink as much water in the winter because it’s harder to handle liquids with gloves on, and people are distracted with trying to stay warm in the winter,” says Doty. But not drinking enough water can make you feel achier because it keeps your body from effectively processing waste products, she adds.
The Fix: Do your best to stay on top of your water intake, and avoid relying on warm, caffeinated drinks like coffee or black and green tea. “People drink caffeinated beverages, which are a diuretic, and then their bodies are at a deficit,” says Doty. Good old H2O is what you need here.
5. Cold season
You probably don’t have to go farther than your own living room to know that winter is the time of year when most of us catch colds and flus—and the dry air can make matters even worse. “In winter, nasal passages get plugged more easily, and with a lot more mucous, it can get irritated down in the back of your throat, which means you can’t clear it as well,” says Doty.
The Fix: Flu season ends in early spring, says Fryhofer, so it’s not too late to get your annual flu shot if you haven’t gotten yours already. For soothing an already-sore throat, try these natural remedies and be sure to get enough rest.
6. Icy conditions
Walking on ice is a balancing act for even the most dextrous among us—and you may find yourself yourself unconsciously tensing your body to brace yourself for a fall. This can take a toll on your muscles, making you feel achier at the end of the day—and more likely to injure yourself. “If you are tense while walking on ice and you slip, you are more apt to pull a muscle than if you fell while you were more relaxed,” says Knobel.
The Fix: “Be conscious of your body tension and try to address it,” says Doty. “On ice, the safest thing to do is a shuffle step without lifting your feet.” Also, make sure your footwear is sensible and comfortable. “Some people’s boots have very poor arch support, and people can have pain from wearing them all day long,” she adds.
7. Whirling dirt
Blustery winds carrying dirt and sand can irritate and dry out your eyes, causing painful stinging and tearing. “Because of the winter conditions, there’s more particulate matter that flies around,” says Doty. “Between the dry air and the dust, it tends to be an irritant to the eye.”
The Fix: Consider using drops that help your eyes stay moisturized and refreshed—and be sure to keep your sunglasses handy all winter long: They do a good job shielding your eyes from both winter sun glare and flying grit.