How to Survive the Most Common Winter Illnesses

  • January 30, 2019
How to Survive the Most Common Winter Illnesses

In addition to the freezing temperatures, winter also brings with it an increased risk of a variety of illnesses and medical emergencies. And since our immune system weakens with age, something that seems harmless, like common cold symptoms, can become a serious health threat to seniors. Taking the necessary steps to protect yourself from these winter illnesses and conditions can end up being life-saving:

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Asthma Attacks

The cold, dry winter air is one of the biggest triggers for asthma symptoms, including shortness of breath and wheezing. Even worse is the fact that these symptoms can lead to an asthma attack, which occurs when the muscles in your airways tighten.

Although this kind of medical emergency is more common in the wintertime, it is possible for you to reduce your risk of experiencing a cold-related asthma attack with these tips:

  • Don’t sit by the fireplace. Although the fireplace seems like the perfect place to be in the wintertime, the smoke will irritate your lungs and increase your risk of an asthma attack.
  • Breathe through your nose, not your mouth. Give your lungs a well-deserved break by breathing through your nose and wearing a scarf over your nose and mouth whenever you go outside. Doing so will warm up the air before it reaches your lungs.
  • Replace filters. Before turning on your home’s heating system, ask a loved one to replace the filters to prevent dust and other debris from spreading throughout your home and triggering your asthma. Filters should also be regularly changed or cleaned every few months to ensure that the least amount of dust and debris is circulating around your home.
  • Take your medications as prescribed. Since asthma flare-ups are much more common in winter, it may be necessary to change the medications you take this time of year. Talk to your physician or asthma specialist to determine if creating a wintertime treatment plan is necessary.

Painful Joints

Although it’s not necessarily thought of as one of the common winter illnesses, arthritis pain typically peaks this time of year. Even if you don’t have arthritis, however, it is still possible for you to experience painful or stiff joints, especially if you’re affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder. No matter the reason, these tips will help make your joints less painful:

  • Go for a swim. Exercise is the number one way to beat painful joints, and although it seems contradictory in the cold weather, swimming is a great low-impact exercise that will help loosen stiff muscles.
  • Take advantage of warm beverages. Not only are they comforting in the cold weather, but cups of hot chocolate and hot tea also help alleviate joint pain.
  • Bundle up at night. In addition to getting a good night’s rest, keep your body warm with a heated mattress cover or blanket to prevent joint pain in the morning.
  • Avoid holiday weight gain. Between the tempting desserts and comfort food, it’s no surprise that the average adult gains 1.3lbs the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. This may not seem like much, but this extra weight puts more pressure on your joints. Luckily, you can watch your waistline during the holiday season and all throughout winter with these tips.

Heart Attacks

Since your heart has to work much harder to maintain body heat during the wintertime, heart attacks are quite common once the cold weather sets in. Especially if you’ve been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, it’s even more important that you take these precautions to help your heart cope with the cold weather:

  • Keep your home warm. To help ease the strain on your heart, set the temperature in your home to at least 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Bundle up—both inside and outside. It may seem odd, but wearing a hat and mittens indoors will go a long way in keeping your body warm. Always wear plenty of layers if you plan on going outside.
  • Use a humidifier. Whether you get a humidifier that works with your central heating system or a smaller humidifier that can be moved from room to room, be sure to clean it regularly.
  • Don’t overdo it. While staying active in the wintertime is key to your health, you must pay attention to your body. For example, if you need to shovel your driveway or walkway, take plenty of breaks and don't be afraid to seek assistance from a family member or friendly neighbor.

The Common Cold

Should you experience a runny nose, sore throat, coughing, congestion, body aches or even a fever, chances are you have a cold. These common cold symptoms seem harmless at first, but the cold can be very problematic for seniors since you are much more likely to develop complications from it as you get older, including life-threatening pneumonia.

Especially if you have a chronic condition or take medications that weaken your immune system, you need to take the following preventative steps throughout the winter:

  • Wash your hands regularly. This simple practice helps destroy the germs you pick up as you go about your daily routine.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes. Especially if your hands are unwashed, it’s much easier for viruses to enter your body through your mouth, nose, and eyes.
  • Use disposable tissues. To avoid constantly reinfecting your hands, use disposable tissues instead of a handkerchief and sneeze and cough into your elbow.
  • Boost your immune system. Including these immune-boosting foods in your diet will help you avoid dealing with those pesky common cold symptoms.

The Flu

The flu is one of the most serious winter illnesses for seniors as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that this age group makes up between 54 and 70 percent of flu-related hospitalizations each year. Similar to the common cold, seniors are much more likely to develop complications from flu symptoms, which is why it’s so important that you do everything you can to reduce your risk of getting the flu:

  • Get a flu shot annually. Despite the common misconception, the flu shot is completely safe for seniors and is the best way to prevent getting sick with the flu and even the common cold.
  • Consider other vaccinations. Since pneumococcal pneumonia is one of the most common flu-related complications, speak with your doctor about getting the pneumococcal vaccine in addition to a flu shot.
  • Avoid those who are sick. Should anyone you know display flu symptoms, such as a fever, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, chills, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea, urge them to see their doctor right away. Avoid contact with them as much as possible until they are feeling better.
  • See your doctor immediately. Since the common cold symptoms are very similar to flu symptoms, seeing your doctor is the only way to determine whether it’s a common cold or the flu. Whether it’s a cold or the flu, seeking treatment right away is the best way to ensure that you don’t develop complications from it.

Protection All Winter and Year-Long

Mixed with the cold weather, these winter illnesses can really take a toll on your health, threatening your ability to continue living alone in your home. A medical alert device from Medical Guardian will give provide you with 24/7 access to help and enable you to stay independent in your own home longer. Whether you need medical attention or a family member to stop by, our top-rated monitoring center will send the help you need right away.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hilary Young is a health and wellness expert that specializes in both senior life and caregiving. She'd love to hear more about your thoughts on aging, healthy living, and caregiving, and you can find her on Twitter at @hyoungcreative to start the conversation.

KEYWORDS: winter illness, preventing the flu, senior illnesses

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