6 ways to combat the health effects of cold weather

Cold weather isn’t likely to make you sick, but it can still impact your health. Knowing the potential dangers of cold weather can increase your chances of staying healthy this autumn and winter— and combatting increased risks of contracting the common cold to developing depression during those shorter, chillier days.

Misconceptions about how cold weather affects our health are common. If you recall your mother cautioning you about catching “your death of cold” as you bounded into the snow without a coat, you’ve heard them firsthand.

“The truth lies in how the weather affects colds after you’re infected,” says Dr. LeeAnna Lyne from Susquehanna Health Medical Group in Pennsylvania.“Cold weather causes decreased blood flow in the nose, ears, hands, etc., to keep the heart and brain protected. This causes dryness and a decreased ability of the nose to filter pathogens like viruses,” making you vulnerable and aggravating already-present symptoms.

But the common cold isn’t the only thing you have to worry about in colder months. Indoor allergies, seasonal affective disorder, and even heart attacks are concerns this time of year. How can you stay healthy?

1. Practice cleanliness and good hygiene.

Wash your hands often and thoroughly; Lyne recommends you scrub for at least 20 seconds to wash away germs. She also recommends you steer clear of sick friends and family when they are contagious and avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes to prevent the spread of pathogens you may have picked up on a doorknob or countertop. Because indoor allergies can be particularly troublesome in a stuffy house that’s been closed up for the season, make sure you frequently vacuum using a HEPA filter, wash bedding regularly and change your furnace filters often.

READ MORE: This Guide on Asthma and Allergies Has Some Helpful Tips

2. Dress for the conditions.

While stepping outside without your coat or with wet hair won’t give you instant pneumonia (sorry, Mom), it can stress your immune system or worsen existing symptoms. Dressing warmly protects you from this increased susceptibility and from the risks of frostbite and hypothermia if you become stranded in a storm, for instance.

3. Stay fit year-round.

When it’s cold and the weather is bad, you’re less likely to exercise. Paired with holiday foods and drinks, you have a recipe for weight gain, not to mention stiff muscles and the pains that go with inactivity. Staying in peak condition year-round through moderate exercise also ensures your immune system is ready to fight off illness when it attacks.

READ MORE: The 3 Exercises That Are Smart Financial Investments

4. If you’re feeling depressed, talk to someone.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real form of depression that worsens during autumn and winter, and usually subsides in the spring. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it’s linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain triggered by a lack of sunshine and shorter days. Fortunately, it’s treatable. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms— especially if they are disrupting your daily life or you are having suicidal thoughts.

READ MORE: Does Your Health Insurance Cover Mental Health Treatment?

5. Get outside when you can.

Don’t use temperatures alone as an excuse to stay in. Bundle up and get outside. Not only does outdoor activity boost your physical health— upping your daily exercise, increasing Vitamin D levels and even speeding injury and illness recovery times— but research shows spending more time in nature can provide mental benefits too like reducing stress, boosting self-esteem and improving overall psychological well-being.

6. For your heart’s sake, take it easy.

“Many of us are not conditioned for the rigors of handling the fluffy white stuff,” says Lyne. “If you haven’t exerted yourself all year and then go shovel a heavy, 8-inch snowfall, your heart is definitely strained simply due to working harder.”

As a matter of fact, cardiac death rates peak in wintertime. While the reasons for this seasonal peak aren’t completely understood, it’s believed that the physiological effects of colder temperatures paired with overexertion may play a role. If you’re not in optimal health, ask for help when it’s time to scoop the walk, and even if you’re fit, it’s wise to take frequent breaks.

READ MORE: How to Get Your Heart Checked For Free

As the seasons change, so should our methods of staying healthy. Taking a few preventive steps may allow you to enjoy hot drinks by the fireplace or a brisk day at the football stadium without a box of tissues at your side.