This winter, countries around the world have been experiencing record low temperatures. In the United Arab Emirates, heavy rain and flooding in November lead to dangerous roads, after which the area was affected by a dense fog and unseasonably cool temperatures. Across the ocean, the United States has seen unusually large amounts of snowfall, and even Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok have had to brace themselves against the unexpectedly cold temperatures.
Unfortunately, spells of cold weather often come with health risks. In the cold, our heart rate and blood pressure will rise as the body attempts to keep itself warm. Along with this increased blood flow comes an increased risk of cardiovascular strain, and because cold weather can also raise the risk of blood clots, people with poor cardiovascular health are more likely to have a heart attack in bouts of cold weather. The American Heart Association advises that anyone working outdoors in the cold – especially those with a history of heart problems – should be careful to avoid overexertion, and should never jump suddenly into any physical activity that might strain the body.
The link between cold weather and heart attacks has been talked about for some time, but just this year medical scientists announced more evidence of the link between chilly temperatures and cardiovascular risk. At the 2013 meeting of the European Society of Cardiology Congress, two studies were presented that both explored heart risk in the winter. In one study from Switzerland, Dr. Pedro Marques-Vidal examined not heart attacks, but the risk factors that can lead to them: high cholesterol and obesity. Dr. Marques-Vidal found that cholesterol and waist circumference tend to increase during the months of January and February, when compared to the summer months. Researchers theorize that this increase is due to a change in eating habits over winter, but say that more studies are needed to determine exactly why cholesterol, and the risk of heart attack, become higher when the thermostat drops.
Another study on heart health and cold weather presented at the Cardiology Congress came from Belgium. Researchers on this study demonstrated that with every temperature drop of 10 degrees Celsius, the risk of heart attack increases by 7 percent. However, because this study was conducted using a group of people with the average age of 63 who had already experienced at least one heart attack, it’s likely that those statistics of cold weather risk are relevant primarily to people who already carry a cardiovascular risk.
The spell of cold temperatures last December resulted in weather-related health maladies occurring in countries that aren’t used to experiencing such a frosty winter. In Southeast Asia, Hong Kong has just experienced its coldest temperatures of 2013, along with more than 50 elderly people seeking admittance to hospitals because of illness and injury related to the cold. Thermostats averaged 8 degrees Celsius on Wednesday the 18 of December, with some areas of the normally warm city seeing temperatures drop as low as 4.3 degrees Celsius. Hong Kong’s Senior Citizens’ Home Safety Association reported that on Wednesday, more than 500 elderly residents of the city made use of personal emergency buttons.
Besides an increased risk of accident or illness exacerbation, especially among the elderly, cold weather can also increase the risk of viruses. When it’s cold outside, we tend to spend more time indoors and in close quarters with other people, making it more likely that a virus will spread in the winter. Many viruses survive better in dry weather, again increasing our risk of catching the common cold during the winter.
The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that cold weather can also cause flare ups in preexisting medical conditions. People with asthma or another chronic respiratory infection will often experience a worsening of symptoms during the months of winter; especially if the heating inside their house is not sufficient, or they work a job that requires long hours outside. WHO also lists dermatological problems as a possible side effect of cold weather: drier, cooler air can lead to chapped skin, and turning up the water heat in the shower to compensate for cold weather only makes skin worse. People dealing with a chronic skin condition such as psoriasis are usually recommended by dermatologists to use a penetrating moisturizer as much as necessary, and to continue outdoor walks in the winter because moderate sunlight can have a positive effect on the scaly, dry skin associated with psoriasis. Ongoing mental health conditions can also be triggered by cold weather and darker days.
The good news is that cold weather isn’t always bad for health. A November report from the U.S. state Texas highlighted the success of an autumn cold snap in killing off mosquitoes and decreasing some of the area’s worries about the West Nile virus. Whereas last year the North Texas county Arlington reported over 60 cases of West Nile virus, in 2013 just two have been seen – most likely due to colder temperatures.
Health benefits of cold weather do exist, but aren’t likely to outweigh the disadvantages anytime soon. Luckily, governments around the world are recognizing the medical threat of extreme winters, and taking action to protect citizens vulnerable to cold weather maladies. In 2011, The National Health Service of England (NHS) published its first Cold Weather Plan for England, intended to address the excess of deaths that occur in the winter. In the forward to the document, Chief Medical Officer and professor Dame Sally C. Davies explains that during the winter of 2010-2011, deaths increased by around 1,300 per week, when compared with summertime fatality statistics. The Cold Weather Plan for England includes information on how cold weather affects and creates medical conditions; advice to health workers, social workers and local authorities on working together to protect vulnerable citizens such as the homeless or elderly; and recommendations for the NHS and local authorities.