10 winter health myths exposed
Due to cold and flu season, chilly weather and holiday stress, it seems like we worry more about our health during the winter than at any other time of year. But do we really need to stress about our well-being this season? We spoke to the experts about the biggest winter health myths and found out the truth.
Myth #1: You can catch a cold by being out in the elements too long.
You've probably heard the old warning that going outside in chilly weather, and staying there too long, can make you "catch" a cold. Not true, says D.J. Verret, MD, an otolaryngologist in Dallas. "Going outside -- with or without a wet head -- is one of the best things you can do to prevent catching a cold. Actually being cold has nothing to do with your risk of catching a cold. Colds are caused by viruses or bacteria which are more often spread in the winter because of close contact from everyone being indoors." That's right, spending time outdoors can make you less susceptible to those nasty germs.
Myth #2: More people are depressed during the winter months than at any other time of the year.
Gray, dreary skies. Holiday stress. Bitter-cold weather. It seems natural to assume that depression spikes in the winter months. And yet, health experts say that's just a myth. "Contrary to popular belief, major depression is not more rampant during the winter months than at any other time of the year," says John Sharp, MD, a professor at Harvard University and author of the new book The Emotional Calendar. But what about the wintertime sadness you may be feeling? "The 'holiday blues' is a significant, temporary, stress-related condition, but it is not a recognized medical ailment or diagnosis." Some people may also experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which has symptoms similar to depression, such as insomnia, irritability and difficulty concentrating, but only occurs during the winter months. If you suffer from these symptoms or just have less energy in general during this time of year, consider trying light therapy, suggests Dr. Sharp, who explains that an inexpensive 10,000-lux light box (which can fit on your desk) used 20 minutes or so a day may give you a boost -- even if you haven't been diagnosed with SAD by a medical professional. Click here to learn more about light therapy and search for a light box.
Myth #3: The idea that eating chicken soup can zap a cold is just an old wives' tale.
Your mom or grandmother may have raised you to believe that there's something magical about chicken soup when it comes to treating a cold or flu, but is it true? Yes, says Dr. Sharp. "Turns out, there's some real science behind this," he says, explaining that chicken soup may have a positive effect on the immune system with something called neutrophil aggregation -- which means "bringing white blood cells together." White blood cells help fight off infection in your body and are integral to helping you feel better faster. While it's not clear if other broths or hot beverages have similar immune system benefits, Dr. Sharp says hot liquids like tea and broth can help reduce the symptoms of a cold or flu virus, relieving sinus and throat pain.
Myth #4: You lose most of the heat from your body through your head, so you need to wear a hat.
We've all heard this one -- and perhaps it worries you when you're out with your children during the winter months. If they don't wear a hat in the cold, is it drawing dangerous amounts of warmth from their bodies? Not really, says Dr. Sharp. "It's largely a myth," he says. While it's true that you'll lose heat from any part of your body that is exposed to the elements and not covered with clothing, forgetting a hat "is not a major health risk," he assures. "You're no better off in shorts and a hat than warm pants and no hat." The bottom line: A hat is great in cold conditions, but if you leave the house without one to take the dog on a walk -- no biggie. A warm coat is much more important to keep you insulated.
Myth #5: You shouldn't exercise in the cold.
You may already be unmotivated to lace up your running shoes and head out into the cold, but if you're worried that chilly-weather exercise is bad for your health, don't be. "It's fine to exercise in the cold, just make sure you warm up first," says Dr. Sharp. That may mean walking a bit before starting on a vigorous run, or avoiding a big hill until you're acclimated to the temperature. Sudden physical exertion in cold weather can, at times, be a risk for cardiovascular strain -- for example, leaving your armchair and heading outside to vigorously shovel snow. (An important note: Anyone with a history of heart problems should always consult his or her doctor before starting any new exercise regimen -- in the cold or otherwise.) Your best bet for winter workouts is to ease in slowly.
Myth #6: We need more sleep in the winter.
Admit it -- when winter hits and the sun seems to all but disappear, the thought of hibernation sounds appealing, doesn't it? But that sleepy feeling you may get in the winter doesn't mean you should always let yourself snooze longer. "While it's natural to want to be cozier and be in bed more, we don't technically need more sleep," Dr. Sharp explains. Instead, it's likely that the scarcity of sunlight in the winter months makes us think we're sleepy. There's nothing wrong with going to bed earlier, but beware of sleeping too much. "Some people find that when they get more sleep, they feel sleepier during the day, even a little dazed."
Myth #7: You don't need sunscreen in the winter.
It's cold and cloudy, so you can retire your sunscreen until sunny days at the beach this summer, right? Wrong, says Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist. "The sun and UV rays are present winter, spring, summer and fall," she says. "I recommend that you wear a sunscreen with SPF 30, and it's best to wear a UVA/UVB blocker. The best ones contain zinc or titanium."
Myth #8: Frostbite is hard to get.
Frostbite may sound like something people dealt with in olden times, or possibly a condition suffered only by hardcore ski enthusiasts. But not only is frostbite easy to get, it's more common than you think, says Dr. Jaliman, who got a case of frostbite after an afternoon on the slopes. How do you get it? When skin -- usually on the extremities, like hands and feet -- becomes too cold or wet (or both), it can become slightly numb and then blister. It can happen fast -- even in just 30 minutes while in extreme cold and wet conditions. "If blisters occur, then there may be damage and the skin may turn black," says Dr. Jaliman. "Then you may become insensitive to heat and cold in the future. With further damage, you may suffer nerve damage and lose fingers and toes." And don't think that it needs to be -10°F for you to run into trouble. "The temperature can be relatively warm at 32°F, but it's more about how long the bare skin is exposed. Also, wet skin is very vulnerable."
Myth #9: Dry skin is just a harmless winter annoyance.
Itchy, flaky skin can be an irritating and unsightly consequence of cold, dry air. But should you just write it off as a winter annoyance? No, says Dr. Jaliman. Dry skin, if not kept at bay, can be a portal for infection. "It's very important to keep dry skin hydrated," she says. When skin becomes dry, it can lead to small cracks that can leave your body prone to infections. To prevent this, moisturize twice daily -- after you shower and before bed -- as well as throughout the day for body parts that are prone to dryness, like your hands. "I like Aquaphor," says Dr. Jaliman. "It's inexpensive and effective."
Myth #10: You can't get allergies in the winter months.
In the winter, there's good and bad news for allergy sufferers, says Dr. Verret: "If you have pollen allergies, they will be better in the winter, but if you're sensitive to indoor allergens, such as pet dander or dust mites, your allergies may be even worse." So although your sneezing and sniffling may not be from seasonal culprits, your indoor allergies could be more bothersome than usual.