The 17 Most Common Illnesses in Winter
During the year's cold snap, no one is safe.
You can feel energetic and healthy all spring, summer, and fall, but no one is safe during the winter. Between the drastic changes in temperature and being cooped up indoors (within close proximity of others who might already have an illness), one cough, sneeze, or germ-filled communal space—hello, nasty office kitchens!—could leave you sick for days. With that in mind, here are the 17 most common illnesses to watch out for.
If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet this season, it’s not too late. Even though you’re supposed to get it by the end of the October, there is still time to protect yourself. “Peaking in January through February, the flu is truly the bane of winter illnesses. 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 Harvard and Yale-trained ER doctor Darria Long Gillespie, MD. “If you do get the flu, expect to be down for the count for five to seven days or more. Drink plenty of warm fluids to keep the chills at bay, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and body aches, and just let your body rest.”
Conjunctivitis, better known as pink eye, is when the white of your eye becomes irritated or inflamed due to viruses, bacteria, allergens, or irritants. Weirdly enough, the Cleveland Clinic says it is super common during the winter—and also super contagious, depending on which type you have. If you come down with a case, make sure to wash your hands on the regular and, of course, avoid touching your eyes.
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,” Dr. 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. The key for the cold is to take decongestants and use saline rinses and a humidifier to help open up a clogged nose.”
Cold sores tend to pop up when your immunity is low and your body is stressed—in other words, the textbook definition of wintertime. According to the National Health Service (NHS), the painful, fluid-filled lesions on your lips are brought upon when you’re feeling run down, so try to stay as relaxed and healthy as you can throughout the season by doing some yoga or meditation, eating a wholesome diet, and drinking plenty of water to keep your health in tiptop shape and your lips cold sore-free.
Sore throats are already uncomfortable enough, but strep is on another level, causing severe pain, a fever, and swollen tonsils and lymph nodes. “Have a sharp pain in your throat that feels like swallowing knives every time you have to swallow? It could be a sign of strep throat,” Dr. Long Gillespie says. “If that’s the case, it’s time for a trip to your doctor to test if it’s a bacterial infection—what you may know as strep throat—versus the viral form, which is pharyngitis.” If strep is the issue, expect to be taking some antibiotics for treatment.
Norovirus is a food-borne illness caused by contaminated foods or surfaces, and it’s especially common in the winter. You come into contact with a lot of people during the holiday season, and because of how contagious it is, the chances of getting it yourself are pretty high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all it takes is a tiny amount of virus particles to become infected. If you do, you’ll likely experience vomiting or diarrhea. Like with any contagious illness, you can decrease your chances of catching it by washing your hands regularly.
Migraines can be a battle year-round, but according to the National Headache Foundation, they come about more often in the winter. A small study found that colder temps might not only act as a trigger for migraines, but also make them occur more often in those who are sensitive to temperature changes.
Christmas Tree Syndrome
Christmas tree syndrome sounds like it might be a joke, but it’s a very real thing. According to Ohio State University, 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; it’s what collects on them in people’s homes, even if the trees are fake. The mold growing and dust collecting on Christmas trees can cause watery eyes, a runny nose, breathing issues, or even itchy rashes.
Bronchitis is an infection that involves the inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes, which 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. Unfortunately, it’s super common in the winter: According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s caused by the same viruses that knocks you out with a cold or the flu.
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,” Dr. Long Gillespie says. “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.”
There are two types of pneumonia: bacterial and viral. Both are pretty horrible, causing your airways to swell and the air sacs in your lungs to fill with fluid, making it harder to breathe, according to Cleveland Clinic. If you think you’re dealing with the illness, make sure to get medical attention. If it’s serious, it might even require a hospital stay.
Ear infections come about when you experience a buildup of fluid in the middle ear, which is common in the winter due to the higher rates of the cold and flu, says the Mayo Clinic. If you keep your immune system strong and limit your contact with those who are under the weather, you might be able to prevent coming down with common seasonal illnesses altogether.
It’s not uncommon for your mood to totally shift in the dark, dreary days of winter. In fact, there’s a name for the issue: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a type of depression that starts in the fall and can last all winter long. 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. It can seriously impact your life, so be sure to get proper treatment.
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, which is 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 every so often, and get in plenty of exercise and stretching.
If you have a weakened immune system or a cold—two common issues in the wintertime—your risk for coming down with a sinus infection increases. According to the CDC, sinus infections occur when germs grow due to trapped fluid in your sinuses. After you come down with the illness, you might be left with a headache, stuffy nose, uncomfortable pressure in your face, or a sore throat. The best thing you can do for yourself is rest.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
January is the deadliest month when it comes to carbon monoxide poisoning due to all the different heating methods we use, according to the Texas Poison Center Network. If you breathe in too much of carbon monoxide—which is produced by burning fuel in things like stoves, fireplaces, and furnaces—you might experience headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and chest pain. Carbon monoxide poisoning kills more than 400 Americans every year, according to the CDC. It’s important to keep yourself safe with a carbon monoxide detector, and make sure your heating sources are inspected yearly.
You aren’t just at risk for coming down with a nasty infection during the winter—your heart is at risk, too. According to Harvard Medical School, cold temperatures work as vasoconstrictors, narrowing your blood vessels and increasing your chances of having a heart attack. To make sure you don’t stress out the all-important organ, be sure to pack on the layers and keep your body nice and warm. And for more info that will keep your ticker strong for years, know that This Common Everyday Painkiller Raises Your Risk of a Heart Attack.
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