The 15 Most Common Winter Illnesses, According to Doctors
Watch out for these common winter illnesses that tend to take over the season.
Even if you feel energetic and healthy all through the spring, summer, and fall, when it comes to the winter, no one is safe. When you're cooped up indoors all day within close proximity to others who might already be sick, just one cough or sneeze can leave you under the weather for days. "We spend more time in enclosed spaces, close to each other, so that we have more prolonged face-to-face contact," William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Healthline. He notes that viruses thrive in cold weather when there's no humidity. As a result, "the virus remains in the air for a sufficiently prolonged time so that the person who is sufficiently close to me can breathe it in." Now that you know just how susceptible you are to getting sick this season, here are the 15 most common winter illnesses to watch out for.
When it comes to asthma—a condition that inflames your airways, making it harder to breathe—winter weather only makes matters worse. "For people who already have a diagnosis of asthma, they often find that their symptoms worsen in the dry, cold weather," says ER doctor Darria Long Gillespie, MD. "If that's the case, be sure to continue any scheduled medications you're supposed to take to keep you less vulnerable, and speak to your doctor early on if you start to have a flare."
"Peaking in January through February, the flu is truly the bane of winter illnesses," says Long Gillespie. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just under 30,500 influenza-related hospitalizations were reported from October 2017 through April 2018.
If you haven't gotten your flu shot yet this season, you might want to head to the pharmacy ASAP. "The best way to prevent the flu—or at least, ensure you don't get a severe case of it—is with the vaccine," says Long Gillespie.
The Common Cold
Is there a more prevalent winter illness than the aptly-named common cold? "With the dry climate and colder temperatures, the rhinovirus—the bug that's the most common cause of the cold—tends to thrive," Long Gillespie says.
Luckily, your symptoms won't make you feel quite as awful as the flu does. "When you have a cold, you can probably continue doing your normal activities, but listen to your body," advises Long Gillespie. "The key with the cold is to take decongestants and use saline rinses and a humidifier to help open up a clogged nose."
Conjunctivitis, better known as pink eye, happens when the white of your eye becomes irritated or inflamed due to a virus, bacteria, allergens, or irritants. The Cleveland Clinic says that since it's spread like a cold, this condition is common during the winter. It's also super contagious, so if you come down with a case, make sure to wash your hands on the regular and, of course, avoid touching your eyes.
Ear infections occur due to a buildup of fluid in the middle ear. And thanks to higher cold and flu rates and seasonal allergies, the Mayo Clinic says that kind of buildup is more common in the winter. The good news? If you limit your contact with those who are under the weather and wash your hands regularly, you should be able to avoid this common winter illness.
Cold sores tend to pop up when your immunity is low and your body is stressed—in other words, during the wintertime. According to the National Health Service (NHS), these painful, fluid-filled lesions on your lips are brought upon when you're feeling run down, so try to stay as well-rested and as healthy as you can throughout the season by doing some yoga, eating a balanced diet, and drinking plenty of water.
Strep throat is extremely common. In a 2007 paper published in the journal Canadian Family Physician, Graham Worrall of Memorial University in Newfoundland notes that sore throats are the second most common acute infection seen by family practitioners. And though a sore throat can occur during any season, this infection is most common during the winter months. As pediatrician Traci T. Brumund, MD, explains on the Baton Rouge Clinic's website, that's because of all that close contact in the winter that makes people more susceptible.
One of the more serious (and unfortunately more common) winter health issues is myocardial infarction, or a heart attack. According to Harvard Medical School, cold temperatures work as vasoconstrictors, narrowing your blood vessels and increasing your chances of having a heart attack. To keep your heart healthy, be sure to pack on the layers and keep your body nice and warm.
Migraines can be a battle year-round, but they're especially common in the wintertime. A small 2015 study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain found that colder temperatures might not only act as a trigger for migraines, but also cause them to occur more often in those who are sensitive to temperature changes.
It's not uncommon for your mood to totally shift during the dark, dreary days of winter. In fact, there's a name for the issue: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. And it's not something to be taken lightly, either: According to the Mayo Clinic, it can lead to oversleeping, appetite changes, weight gain, and tiredness or low energy. Seasonal depression can seriously impact your life, so be sure to get proper treatment.
Bronchitis is an infection that involves the inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes that carry oxygen to the lungs. If you come down with a case of it, you could experience everything from a cough and chest discomfort to mucus and fatigue. And unfortunately, it's super common in the winter because it's caused by the same viruses that knock you out with a cold or the flu, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If your joints start to ache the instant it gets cold outside, you're not alone. According to the Arthritis Foundation, changes in barometric pressure can cause more aches—and that's exactly what happens when a cold front moves in. To help get some relief, grab a heating pad, take a nice soak in a bubble bath, and get in plenty of exercise and stretching.
Christmas Tree Syndrome
According to an article on Ohio State University's website by physician Kara Wada, MD, people with allergies tend to have worse symptoms during the winter months. It's not just because of the freshly cut pines and their pollen, either; it's also because of the mold and dust that collects on trees in people's homes, even if they're fake. As a result, people with allergies tend to experience watery eyes, runny noses, breathing issues, and itchy rashes in the winter, which is why the condition has been dubbed Christmas tree syndrome.
Sinus infections occur when fluids gets trapped in your sinuses and germs multiply inside of that fluid, according to the CDC. And if you already have a weakened immune system or a cold—two common issues in the wintertime—your risk of coming down with a sinus infection increases. Even seasonal allergies can make you more susceptible to a sinus infection, so make sure to take care of yourself once winter rolls around.
Norovirus is a food-borne illness caused by contaminated foods or surfaces. And unfortunately, it's one of the more common winter illnesses: The CDC reports that from 2009 to 2012, norovirus outbreaks peaked from November through March. Like with any contagious illness, you can decrease your chances of catching it by washing your hands regularly.