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 7 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 Barbara Doty, MD, a family physician based in Wasilla, AK, 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.
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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 Sandra Fryhofer, MD, 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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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 Laura Knobel, MD, a family doctor in Walpole, MA, 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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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. (Feel better fast with this workout that boosts your mood.)
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 Dr. 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 Dr. Doty. Good old H2O is what you need here.
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