The question: Help! I find it much harder to breath in cold air. I haven't had any heart trouble or respiratory issues in the past. Could this be asthma?
The answer: Your concern is a valid one as many things can trigger asthma, with cold weather being high on the list. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that involves narrowing of the airways (bronchioles) in the lungs, which makes it difficult to breathe.
It's not uncommon to see asthma diagnosed for the first time during the winter months, when we spend more time outdoors in the cold. Symptoms of weather-induced asthma can include wheezing, difficulty catching your breath and coughing.
Let's face it: For most of us, breathing in cold air can be uncomfortable. When cold air passes through the nasal passages or mouth, it travels to the bronchioles of the lungs, where it can cause a spasm and narrowing of these airways, which can be painful. For most, this discomfort is temporary, and recovery happens quickly as the body acclimatizes. For others, however, the discomfort and shortness of breath can be persistent, which may be a sign of asthma.
If your breathing problems do persist, get your doctor to assess you for asthma or any other lung or heart condition. If it's asthma that's triggered by cold weather, they can prescribe an inhaler that you can use in the winter months to help you breath clearer and with ease.
The question: Why do my joints hurt so much? The weather has recently turned cold and now my hands and wrists are really hurting. What's going on?
The answer: It's not entirely clear why some people can predict a drop in temperature before it happens by a change in sensation or pain felt in their joints.
Some studies have shown that arthritis or joint pain can increase when there is a change in humidity or atmospheric pressure (the weight of the air around us). The theory is that with changes in pressure, the gas and fluid in the spaces of our joints can expand or contract. These changes can cause nerve fibers in and around the joints to react and transmit signals that are interpreted as pain. Another possible cause is that our muscles stiffen when exposed to cold. Muscles surround joint spaces, so if they're stiff, it can feel like the joint is painful. It's also important to note that studies have also shown that people subjectively feel less joint pain in the summer months, which may be related to increased activity levels – or that we're generally happier in warmer weather.
There is no evidence to show that cold weather actually causes damage to our joints, but certainly some people are more sensitive to temperature change – and subsequently, the symptoms of pain and stiffness – than others.
The question: I find that every winter my skin just totally dries out. So much so, my hands will start to tear and bleed a bit. What can I do to treat this?
The answer: When winter hits, hands that were once soft and smooth can become calloused, blistered and bleeding. For most, this is simply due to dry skin. In colder months, moisture decreases due to a drop in humidity; indoor heating systems dry the air; and we are constantly washing or sanitizing our hands to protect against cold and flu season. With this many insults, it's no surprise that our hands are vulnerable to drying out in the winter.
You can treat your hands with these simple steps:
- Add back the moisture: Apply moisturizer directly to your hands, keeping in mind that you may need to reapply several times a day – especially if you’re regularly washing them. Have a large bottle of moisturizer at home and consider carrying a smaller bottle with you to reapply when you’re out. For quicker results, apply the moisturizer at night and put on a pair of gloves overnight to help absorb and seal in the moisture.
- Choose the right moisturizer: It’s not only how often you moisturize, but also the type of moisturizer you use. Look for creams that contain emollients or humectants or even better – both! Emollients seal cracks in the skin and prevent evaporation of moisture. Common emollients include lanolin, cetearyl alcohol, isopropyl myristate and shea or cocoa butter. Humectants draw moisture to the skin from the environment and include ingredients such as glycerin, sorbitol and urea. Over-the-counter creams that contain both substances include Cetaphil, CeraVe, and Eucerin.
- Seek help if they’re not healing: In more severe cases, a prescription-strength cream may be required to heal your hands. Your doctor can prescribe a corticosteroid cream or ointment that can help speed the healing process of cracks or blisters.
But really, it's prevention that's key to keeping your hands soft over the winter months. If you're prone to dry hands, start moisturizing early in the season and cover up with gloves when you're out and exposed to cold air. If you're sensitive to the effects of cold weather, be wary of other potential triggers that can further irritate the hands, such as the alcohol in hand sanitizers or chemicals in cleaners and soaps.
Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.
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