No matter how old you are, winter can pose special health challenges.
“Whenever temperatures drop below what feels lower than normal to you—and as wind speed increases—heat can leave your body more rapidly and leave you at risk of health problems,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Colds and the flu are common at all ages, but medical providers also associate certain illnesses with particular age groups when the temperature drops.
What are the top five winter health problems by life stage?
Knowing them can help you and your family take steps to avoid them.
“The average child gets sick several times every winter,” said Kelly Henchel, M.D., chief of Carilion Clinic’s General Pediatric Clinic. “Kids haven’t had time to build an immunity to many illnesses, so they are likely to get sick more often than teenagers or adults.”
The five top problems kids face in winter are:
- Colds, often accompanied by coughs, sneezes and nasal congestion
- The flu, marked by fever, sore throat and muscle aches
- RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, a viral lung infection seen most often in children under age two
- Strep throat, associated with a headache and sore throat
- Croup, marked by a loud cough that can come on quickly
“Treat children with any of these conditions with fluids and rest at home," said Dr. Henchel. "If you suspect flu, please call your provider. An antiviral medication can lessen the symptoms."
- Infants less than three months of age with a fever of 100.4 degrees F
- Older children with a fever over 104 degrees F
- Children who are not drinking
- Kids who are not active or who are having difficulty breathing
Less common but equally devastating to children in winter are sports-related injuries such as concussion and broken bones. Carilion Children’s pediatric surgeon Kathryn Bass, M.D., offers guidance to caregivers on keeping kids safe while sledding, skating and making snow angels in this Carilion Living article.
An expert in pediatric trauma, Dr. Bass also highlights the risk of hypothermia and dehydration to kids in winter.
“Children are at higher risk of dehydration than adults, even in cold weather,” said Dr. Bass. “So be sure they drink plenty of water before, during and after their activities.”
Teens and those in their early twenties face a similar set of challenges in winter.
“The average teenager or young adult can expect to get two to four colds each winter,” Dr. Henchel noted.
The top five health problems teens and young adults face during winter are:
- The flu
- Mononucleosis, often called “the kissing disease” because it’s caused by a virus spread via saliva; symptoms include fever, swollen lymph nodes, and severe fatigue
- Strep throat
- Stomach flu, marked by stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea; it is extremely contagious and can last from a few hours to a several days
“If you think your teen may have 'mono,' as mononucleosis is often known, be careful about sharing utensils, drinks or anything that can transfer saliva,” said Dr. Henchel. “The symptoms of mono can also persist for months, with a teenager remaining contagious all that time.”
“Teenagers who get the stomach flu should be watched especially for dehydration,” she said. “Take them to the doctor if they can’t keep fluids down.”
With adulthood comes a different set of problems, including the one that adults perhaps fear the most: a heart attack.
These are the five most common winter illnesses that adults suffer:
- Heart attacks, which in winter are more common as our blood vessels constrict in the cold air
- Asthma attacks, often brought on by frigid temperatures
- Seasonal depression, often caused by less daylight or increased isolation due to bad weather
- Weight gain due to not exercising in cold or bad weather
- Viruses—they can spread more easily as the cold keeps people indoors in close quarters
“If you have heart disease, dress warmly when you go out, especially if you plan to shovel snow,” said R. Parker Slayton, M.D., a Carilion Clinic Family Medicine physician. “This includes covering your head and ears.”
He also recommended talking with your primary care provider before it snows about whether your heart is healthy enough to shovel snow. "Shoveling snow is a strenuous activity,” he noted.
- Pressure or squeezing in the center of the chest
- Shooting pain that spreads to shoulders, arms, neck or jaw
- Dizziness, fainting, or sudden abnormal sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Heartburn or indigestion-like pain
- Extreme fatigue or exhaustion
Women may experience signs of a heart attack that may not be as easy to recognize, such as fatigue or feeling flu-like symptoms.
“If you are one of many adults who have asthma,” said Dr. Slayton, “do place a scarf over your mouth and nose to avoid breathing very cold air, which can contribute to an attack.”
Seniors face their own set of complications once winter sets in. The cold air and icy sidewalks pose real hazards to those who are 65 and up.
Older adults especially can quickly lose body heat.
“A big chill can turn into a dangerous problem before an older person even knows what's happening,” warns the National Institutes of Health. “Doctors call this serious problem hypothermia.”
The top five winter challenges for these older adults are:
- Falls. Seniors, many with weakened bones, are particularly at risk for slipping on the ice and breaking a hip or other bone. Recovery can be painful and slow, and complications like pneumonia can occur.
- Hypothermia. Seniors are more likely to develop this medical emergency, when the body’s temperature drops to dangerously low levels.
- Heart attacks. Seniors, especially those who have heart disease, are at greater risk of a heart attack in winter.
- Flu. Complications of the flu, such as pneumonia, are a special risk.
- Dementia. Those with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia can exhibit Sundowner's Syndrome and become more agitated or confused in the early evening hours. The syndrome is associated with the decreased light in winter, which can interfere with our circadian rhythms.
“Older adults should take care to dress warmly when outdoors to prevent hypothermia and even frostbite, which can destroy tissue,” said Dr. Slayton.
“They should also keep their home heated above 65 degrees, since hypothermia can occur indoors among those who are vulnerable,” he said.
Going out in the newly fallen snow to enjoy a winter wonderland? Be safe and enjoy it even more by preparing first!