12 Winter Health Quirks, Explained
With colder temps here to stay, it's time to consider what the winter weather means for your health. You probably already know to be extra diligent about washing your hands, but can going outside with wet hair really make you sick?
As many as four in 10 mothers think sending their children outside with wet heads means trouble, according to Discovery Health. Wet hair or dry hair, it takes exposure to a virus to come down with a cold.
But what about going out without a hat? And why exactly do we shiver? Read on for answers to these and more of the most common cold-weather health questions.
Why Do We Shiver When We Are Cold?
When we're cold, we shiver. But when we shiver, what's going on in our bodies? Shivering is a <a href="http://kidshealth.org/kid/talk/qa/shiver.html" target="_hplink">bodily reflex to cold</a>, according to kidshealth.org. When we are cold, nerve signals go from our brains to our spinal cords, telling our muscles to quickly alternate between tightness and looseness -- creating the sensation of shivering. Our jaws can shiver, too, which is why it's common for our <a href="http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/why-do-we-shiver-when-cold-0636/" target="_hplink">teeth to chatter</a> when we are feeling chilly, LifesLittleMysteries reported. The quickly contracting muscles are meant to <a href="http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/why-do-we-shiver-when-cold-0636/" target="_hplink">produce heat for our bodies</a>.
Is It Possible To Catch A Cold From Being In The Cold?
In short, no. Everyday Health reported that just being in cold weather <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/cs-cold-flu-pictures-myths/colds-and-flu-whats-true.aspx#/slide-2" target="_hplink">won't put you at higher risk of catching a cold</a>. "The reason colds are more common in the winter is probably due to the fact that people are <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/cs-cold-flu-pictures-myths/colds-and-flu-whats-true.aspx#/slide-2" target="_hplink">spending more time inside</a> where it is easier to spread cold viruses," Dr. Guy T. Napolitana, M.D., chairman of general internal medicine at the Lahey Clinic in Massachusetts, told Everyday Health. Colds are caused by viruses, so they can only be "caught" if you are in <a href="http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/does-cold-weather-cause-colds-0409/" target="_hplink">contact with an infected person</a>, LifesLittleMysteries reported. According to the Vanderbilt University health psychology website, the origin of the <a href="http://healthpsych.psy.vanderbilt.edu/2008/CommonCold.htm" target="_hplink">belief that cold weather causes sickness</a> may go back to Celsus's work "De Medicina" in the 1st century AD, which says that winter provokes headaches, coughs and ills that affect the chest and lungs.
Why Do We Crave Fatty Foods In The Cold?
There's actually some research to back this phenomenon up, says Katherine Brooking, R.D., co-founder of <a href="http://www.appforhealth.com/" target="_hplink">AppsForHealth.com</a>. Some findings have suggested a connection between a decrease in the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which can happen in people with seasonal affective disorder, and an increase in consumption of carbohydrates, such as candy, cakes, cookies, pizza, or macaroni and cheese. "High carb food/fatty foods can make us 'feel better' because they are often tasty and pleasurable," Brooking says. "In addition, carbohydrates can lead to an increase in mood-boosting serotonin. So researchers theorize that the increase in carb cravings may be a response to this seasonal dip (for some people) in serotonin." Brooking's business parter, Julie Upton, R.D., agrees, adding that the food readily available during this season can also affect us. "Since more than 50 percent of our food is from away from home, the heartier fare that is served during the winter months does impact our diet and health," she says. "We find that our cholesterol levels rise, triglycerides rise and blood pressure increases during the winter. " To lighten up your favorite comfort foods, Brooking says to try "creamy" soups without the cream, such as broccoli or butternut squash. Swap out skim milk for regular when making mac and cheese or chocolate. In the mood for pizza? She suggests making your own using a whole wheat pita, a quarter cup of part-skim cheese and tons of vegetables. And finally, if you have symptoms of severe seasonal affective disorder leading to excessive carb bingeing, speak to your physician.
When Are You In Danger Of Frostbite?
Think frostbite is only a risk for people who are summiting Mount Everest? Think again. According to the University of Iowa, frostbite can become a real risk if you're unprepared once the <a href="http://www.uihealthcare.com/kxic/2008/01/frostbite.html" target="_hplink">temperatures sink below 32 degrees Fahrenheit</a>. "When we look at temperatures at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and zero degrees centigrade, this is when the <a href="http://www.uihealthcare.com/kxic/2008/01/frostbite.html" target="_hplink">tissue can start to freeze </a>because the blood vessels that support your skin start to become very small and blood can't get there and it increases the tissue for freezing at that time," according to the University of Iowa. Frostbite is literally the <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/frostbite/DS01164" target="_hplink">freezing of the skin and tissues</a>. The condition is most common in fingers, toes, cheeks, chin and ears, according to the Mayo Clinic. The first stage of frostbite can be treated by using warm water to warm up the skin, but severe frostbite is more dangerous and requires medical attention. Severe frostbite can lead to nerve loss and infection, and can even lead to <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/frostbite/DS01164" target="_hplink">gangrene</a> (tissue death and decay). "When the wind chill factor starts heading toward zero degrees, <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/freezing-temperatures-health-dangers-frostbite-hypothermia/story?id=12749898#.Tt0etnNPkqU" target="_hplink">frostbite becomes a very real hazard </a>for anyone caught outside, unprepared for wind and frigid temperatures," Dr. Lewis Marshall, chairman of emergency medicine at Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center, told ABC News.
Why Do Joints Ache In The Cold?
If you have joint problems (whether the result of injury, arthritis or old age) you may have noticed changes in your pain that correspond with the weather. It's not just in your head -- a drop in barometric pressure (which happens when a storm's coming) can <a href="http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/the-weather-wreaking-havoc-on-health?page=2" target="_hplink">increase intensity and sensitivity</a> in pain patients, reports WebMD. This is most likely because the change in pressure makes an inflamed joint -- already a tight, "cramped" space -- feel even tighter, Patience White, M.D., vice president of public health at The Arthritis Foundation, explained to The Huffington Post. "Say you've just gotten a cold, and you're stopped up, and your sinuses have pressure in them because they're inflamed," Dr. White said. "Then you get on an airplane and they change the pressure and you begin to hurt. In a very similar sense, when the outside barometric pressure drops as a storm comes in, many people with arthritis begin to ache."
Do You Really Lose The Most Heat From Your Head?
If you leave your head uncovered in cold temperatures, you'll definitely lose some body heat that way -- but experts say you don't necessarily lose the <em>most</em> heat from your head. The <em>British Medical Journal</em> points out that while heat might be lost from your head if it is left uncovered, it's <a href="http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2769.full" target="_hplink">not any more than other uncovered parts</a> of your body. The idea that most heat is lost from the head likely comes from an old study, where study subjects were put in arctic survival suits -- sans hats -- and then put in cold temperatures, the <em>BMJ</em> reported. Those people <a href="http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2769.full" target="_hplink">lost more heat from their heads</a>, but "had this experiment been performed with subjects wearing only swimsuits, they would not have lost more than 10 percent of their body heat through their heads." <em>The Guardian</em> reports that because our <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/dec/17/medicalresearch-humanbehaviour" target="_hplink">faces and heads are more sensitive to temperature changes</a> than other parts of our bodies, we may think that "covering them up does more to prevent heat loss."
Do Children Have A Lower Sensitivity To The Cold?
Even though parents may notice kids traipsing through snow drifts or building snowmen without a second thought to the freezing temps, adults and children are equally sensitive to the cold, Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician and author of <em>Expecting 411</em>, B<em>aby 411</em> and <em>Toddler 411</em>, told The Huffington Post. In fact, they may actually be colder than adults, depending on their activity level, Dr. Brown said. "Little ones who are being driven around in a stroller are not expending much energy, thus they are not quite as warm as the person who is pushing the stroller."
Why Do Lips and Skin Get So Dry?
Winter has a way of zapping our skin of any moisture -- bringing on that not-so-hot flaky look. "Lips are especially susceptible to drying because the surface of the lips is technically called mucous membrane, and it functions best when slightly moist," Jessica Krant, M.D., dermatologist and founder of <a href="http://www.artofdermatology.com/" target="_hplink">Art of Dermatology</a> told The Huffington Post. Subconsciously licking our lips to make them feel moister only perpetuates the problem. For dry skin, Krant recommends using a moisturizing cream, taking cooler showers, using a gentler cleanser and generally being kind to your skin. "These gentler techniques prevent moisture and natural oils being stripped from your skin, which allows it to stay softer and stronger against the ravages of winter dryness," she says. To protect your lips, Krant suggests applying a lip product, like plain old petroleum jelly, and allowing it to act as a barrier to moisture, wind and dry air -- once it's in place, leave it alone.
What Is The Best Way To Dress For Cold Weather?
In a word, layers! With proper layering, you can add or remove warmth as needed. Opt for an outermost layer that is wind- and water-resistant. "If wetness can penetrate through the clothing," warns Dr. Brown, "[you] will get wet, thus colder." The CDC recommends inner layers made of wool or silk, which will keep you <a href="http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/faq.asp" target="_hplink">warmer than cotton</a>. You may also want to wear a <a href="http://www.weather.com/activities/recreation/ski/articles/snowboarding_dress.html" target="_hplink">wicking layer</a> close to your body to help you stay dry, (depending on whether you're outside shoveling or simply running errands) since wet clothes will make you even chillier, reports Weather.com. Finish off your winter weather ensemble with water-resistant shoes if it's snowy or rainy, plus a hat and mittens, which are actually warmer than gloves. On very cold days, add a scarf to cover your neck and face, suggests the CDC.
Does Tensing Up Make You Less Cold?
Along with shivering, sometimes we find our whole bodies grow tense when we're cold. Not to worry -- this reaction is probably your body's attempt to warm you up, says Dr. Brown. "People will make their muscles move to generate some body heat," she explains. "It isn't usually a voluntary thing -- people do it reflexively."
Why Do I Produce All This Static In My Body And Hair in The Winter?
This one requires a trip back to science class. "When we walk around in winter, or put hats on and off, electrons move around and collect on our body in different areas from cloth rubbing together," Krant says. "When we touch metal or a conductive surface, all the extra electrons we've built up jump off of us in an arc, and we feel and hear a zap, and can even sometimes see a spark." And all that dry air only makes things worse. "The difference in winter is that the air is so dry that the normal moisture molecules in the environment that usually gradually absorb the extra charges from our bodies and hair are missing," Krant explains, "so the charge lingers and we experience a lot more zapping and hair standing up." Alli Webb, founder of the blowout chain Drybar, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/18/cold-weather-beauty_n_1101163.html" target="_hplink">told The Huffington Post last month</a> that hydrating your hair can help to reduce static. She recommends a hydrating mask or leave-in conditioner, and going longer between hair washing and blowdrying.
Can I Really Get Addicted To Chapstick?
This one is a bit of a myth, Krant says -- what seems to be "addictive" is most likely caused by the effects surrounding its use. "First of all, licking the lips repeatedly, and licking off lip protectors (or rubbing the lips together so much it wears off), can cause faster chapping due to both frictional trauma, and increased evaporation from the licking," she explains. "Second, sometimes ingredients in the lip products themselves are either irritating or cause subtle allergic reactions in the lips, which can be mistaken for chapping or dryness." Another theory? "When you put the lip balm on the dry skin, what that does is interfere with the signaling mechanism that signals to the lower cells to start producing more," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/perry-romanowski/smelly-hair-syndrome_b_888736.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost blogger</a> Perry Romanowski, author of the aptly named "Can You Get Hooked On Lip Balm," <a href="http://bodyodd.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/02/07/5988460-can-you-get-hooked-on-lip-balm" target="_hplink">told MSNBC.com earlier this year</a>. "Using lip balm, while it makes your lips feel good initially, when it wears off your skin feels dry again and your skin doesn't have time to replenish that."