15 Common Winter Ailments and What to Do About Them
Here's what the experts say about fighting chapped lips, stuffy noses, and migraines.
There are some major perks of winter, like enjoying the magic of snow, drinking bottomless hot cocoa (marshmallows included), and spending more time cuddled up with the people you love. With that said, there are also plenty of health-related downsides. Cold weather brings about numerous winter ailments that can be tough to steer clear from, whether that's chapped lips or a stuffy nose. The good news is, since they're so common, there are easy fixes—and these are the best expert-approved ways to deal.
There are few things worse than waking up to a nosebleed. "They're more common in the winter because of the dry heat [from heaters]," says Kristine Blanche, PhD, owner of the New York-based Integrative Healing Center. "It can dry the nasal passages, increasing fissures that can bleed."
How to deal: If you haven't tried a humidifier yet, it might be time to get one. "Having a humidifier in your home can help, or you can use a diffuser to diffuse essential oils like lavender," she says. "A little organic jojoba oil or coconut oil applied to the nasal passages can help, too."
Chapped lips don't just look unsightly: They can also be pretty painful if they get bad enough. According to Caren Campbell, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in San Francisco, your skin becomes drier in the winter due to a decrease in humidity, as well as the heating in your home—the same culprits for your nosebleeds. When your lips are dry, you lick them, something that only makes matters worse.
"In an effort to moisturize our skin, we oftentimes lick our lips and then that water evaporates and worsens the dryness," she says. "This can lead to lip lickers dermatitis, which causes severely dry lips to the pink part of the lip and the surrounding skin. We keep licking and it keeps evaporating, and the dryness gets worse and worse."
How to deal: When healing your chapped lips, Campbell says restoring the barrier to lock moisture in and keep it from evaporating is key. "Vaseline is a great option to do this," she says. "Dr. Dan's CortiBalm Lip Balm is also an option for severely chapped lips, as it contains hydrocortisone, but it shouldn't be used every day. The hydrocortisone is more for rescue than prevention."
Cracked corners of the mouth
Have you ever gotten painful cracks in the corners of your mouth? They're called perleche, and they don't look or feel good. They're another side effect of the dry air and lip-licking, Campbell says. "When the corners crack due to dryness and slight overgrowth of the normal skin yeast, this causes perleche or angular cheilitis," she explains.
How to deal: There's a certain derm-approved combination that does wonders in healing those painful cracks: "Mixing half ketoconazole cream or clotrimazole cream and half hydrocortisone cream can help," she says. "Apply it twice a day."
Cold sores have a lot of different triggers, including the sun, wind, and—you guessed it—those dry and peeling lips. Not to mention a weak immune system, another winter specialty. "Outbreaks occur when the immune system is less active or the lips are exposed to triggers," Campbell says. "The winter months are a perfect combo for colds and flus that lower our immune system surveillance, and insults to the skin on the lips, both of which can cause a cold sore."
How to deal: One of the best ways to fight off cold sores is to speak with your doctor. "Valacyclovir is a prescription pill that can be taken at the first sign of an outbreak to shorten or even prevent cold sores," she says. "If you get them frequently, some patients will take Valacyclovir daily to prevent outbreaks."
Cracked, painful hands
Anyone who's ever dealt with cracked hands in the winter knows just how painful the issue can be. While drier winter air can cause the problem, so can trying to wash away winter germs too often. "Frequent hand washing can also contribute," Campbell says. "Using hand sanitizer rather than washing is less drying—particularly ones with moisturizers and emollients."
How to deal: First of all, Campbell says to avoid frequent hand washing. Then, replenish that moisture with creams and lotions. "Apply a cream after washing your hands," she says. "CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream or O'Keeffe's Working Hands are both great options."
The dryness that comes in the winter doesn't just affect your lips and hands. It also affects your scalp, leading to dandruff. "Less humidity or water in the air causes the evaporation of water from the skin, so just like the skin on your lips and elsewhere, your scalp also gets dry," Campbell says.
How to deal: If you have a dry scalp, first switch up your shampoo. "Shampoos that help with inflammation—like DHS Zinc Shampoo or ketoconazole shampoo if you have dandruff—can help," she says. "In severe cases, using steroid solution drops prescribed by your doctor can also be helpful."
If you're happy in the summer and miserable in the winter, you're certainly not alone. "Mood swings are common in the winter with SAD, or seasonal affective disorder," Blanche says. "The lack of sunshine causes the vitamin D levels to drop, and this can trigger fatigue, depression, and mood swings."
How to deal: Since the sun can't give you what you need during the winter months, supplement with vitamins. "Taking vitamin D3 can help," she says. "UVB lights—or a trip somewhere warm and sunny—can also be beneficial." The Cleveland Clinic also says light therapy is effective for 70 percent of people who use it. Commit to 30 minutes a day in the morning, which can help keep your mood up all day long.
Dealing with asthma is horrible at any point of the year, but it can get especially bad when it's cold outside. "It's more common in the winter, especially on very cold, dry days," Blanche says.
How to deal: To keep your asthma from taking over your life, there are a couple things you can do on the daily. "Trying to stay covered with a scarf when you go outside can help, and preheating your car is a good idea," she says. "Essential oils can also help—particularly eucalyptus oil. Put a few drops in a diffuser or in the shower."
A stuffy nose is almost expected at some point during the winter months. "They're common due to the dry nature of the winter air and the dry heat," Blanche says. According to Virginia Ear Nose & Throat, stuffy noses are also brought on by getting a cold, or from all that time spent indoors, which causes you to breathe in more irritating dust and allergens.
How to deal: Like keeping nosebleeds at bay, Blanche says getting a humidifier is the best way to recover from a stuffy nose, as breathing in that air will help clear your nasal passages and fight off any congestion. You can also try nasal decongestant sprays a few days a week.
Adults are at a higher risk of ear infections in the winter for a simple reason. If you come down with a cold or the flu, it can lead to secondary infections, and the ears are an easy target. "Simple acute ear infections can occur if the eustachian tube, which connects the nose to the middle ear space, gets blocked and fluid builds up," Los Angeles-based otolaryngologist John S. Oghalai, MD, told Keck Medicine. What results is a feeling of pain or fullness in the ear, trouble hearing, fluid leakage, and other issues.
How to deal: While ear infections typically go away on their own, you should schedule an appointment with a doctor if you're in a lot of pain or if your infection has lasted for a few days. To help prevent the issue in the first place, Oghalai recommends getting a flu shot, keeping your immune system strong to prevent colds, and rinsing out your nose to keep your nasal passages clear. "The best preventive measure is probably daily nasal irrigation with saline to remove irritants and allergens from the nasopharynx, the back of the nose where the eustachian tube opening is," he says.
Joint pain tends to get worse in the winter for many different reasons. "Cold and wet weather, along with changes in barometric pressure, are the most frequent culprits," Ohio-based physiatrist Meredith Konya, MD, told the Cleveland Clinic. While it's hard to prevent, there are some simple ways you can help that pain fade away.
How to deal: Konya recommends keeping your joints pain-free this winter by dressing warmly in layers and staying active, doing low-impact activities like walking, swimming, and aerobics. You can also try taking vitamin D. "We don't get enough vitamin D from the sunlight in the dreary winter months," she says. A 2015 study in the journal Pain and Therapy showed a connection between vitamin D deficiency and joint pain.
Scratchy, sore throats are no fun. Martin Trott, MD, an otolaryngologist based in Wyoming, told the University of Utah they're super common in the winter because of the dry air. "Your throat has a mucus covering, just like your nose does, and the job of the nose is to make sure that the air that gets to your lungs is warm and humidified," he says. If you're a mouth breather, you're not getting that moisture in your throat, leaving it scratchy.
How to deal: Aside from trying to stick to breathing through your nose more often, which can be tricky, you're really going to want to invest in that oft-recommended humidifier. "Humidification is key, particularly in the home," Trott says. "If you're very dry every morning, it's a good idea to at least get a humidifier in the bedroom and run the humidifier all the time with the bedroom door closed. That would keep the relative humidity at least in that area up."
If you can't catch a break with migraines lately, winter weather is a likely trigger. "Our head is made up of pockets of air that we call sinuses. Usually, those pockets of air are at equilibrium with the atmospheric pressure," New York-based neurologist Cynthia Armand, MD, told the American Migraine Association. "When there's a change in that atmospheric pressure, it creates a change, kind of like a shift, between what you're experiencing in your head and what's going on in the air. That abrupt change may trigger [a] migraine."
How to deal: You can't change the weather or pressure in the air, but you can change some other factors that bring on winter migraines. The cold and dry air can lead to dehydration, which can also bring on a migraine. That's why Armand recommends increasing the amount of water you drink. A humidifier can also help, since it replaces some of the moisture in the air that indoor heating dries out.
Between the heating in your home and the cold winds outside, winter weather can really dry out your eyes, causing irritation. "It seems most people complain more about dry eyes in the winter. The eyes can feel pretty miserable during the winter months," Daniel Bintz, OD, an optometrist based in Oklahoma, told the American Optometric Association.
How to deal: Since the weather takes away moisture from your eyes, you simply need to replace it to get some relief. Bintz recommends using over-the-counter artificial tears. "We usually advise patients with dry eye to take the drops frequently during the day," he says. "Then at bedtime, we might recommend hot compresses along with ointments or gels. Also, hydrate with water and avoid caffeine and alcohol."
Frostbite is scary business. While most people think it's only common if you're doing a lot of outdoor activities in the winter, that's not the case. It can happen to anyone out in the cold and occurs when the water in your skin's soft tissues freeze. "The colder it is, the quicker frostbite can develop," Thomas Waters, MD, an emergency medicine specialist in Ohio, told the Cleveland Clinic. "As damage continues, you can ultimately lose fingers, toes, and extremities," he says.
How to deal: If you're experiencing frostnip, which is milder, you'll feel numbness and those areas will tingle or be painful as you warm back up indoors. If your skin is numb and turns white, pale, or—worse—bluish gray, the matter is more serious, and you should get immediate medical attention to prevent damage. "Warm up those extremities and keep them warm. Don't let them re-freeze," Waters says. "A doctor's examination is vital. Damage is often more severe than it appears." If it's extremely cold out, stay indoors. And if you do go outside, he says to always make sure you're covering your hands, ears, and face.