How to beat the cold

The weather can affect more than your mood – cold temperatures can put your health at risk, too. Sarah Brealey explains how to stay safe when the mercury drops.

Frosty trees and river 

We Brits love to talk about the weather, and every freezing spell is guaranteed to make newspaper headlines. But a cold snap is more than just a conversation starter.

Every year in the UK, there are about 29,000 extra deaths in the winter, but you may be surprised to hear that most aren’t caused by hypothermia. Cold temperatures can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, as well as respiratory diseases such as flu, and people with certain health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, are more at risk. But if this is you, there’s no need to panic. Taking some simple steps can help protect your health.

Dr Gavin Donaldson, a senior lecturer in respiratory medicine at University College London who specialises in the effects of cold on the body, explains why the risk of heart attacks and strokes rises when temperatures fall.

Taking some simple steps can help protect your health

“As you get colder, your blood vessels constrict, increasing your blood pressure,” he says. “That means there’s less capacity in your circulatory system, so fluid passes out of your blood and into the surrounding tissues. The result is that the factors in your blood that cause it to clot become more concentrated and, at the same time, the natural anticoagulants, which help prevent clots, leave your bloodstream. This all makes a heart attack or a stroke more likely.”

Deaths from respiratory infections such as flu are also more common in cold weather because there are more viruses circulating then.

“Viruses need moisture to stay alive, so in damp, winter weather they survive for longer on hand-contact surfaces like door handles, making it easier for them to spread,” explains Dr Donaldson.

How to protect yourself

You’re at greater risk of a heart attack or stroke when you have an illness such as flu, and if you have heart disease, you’re more likely to get complications from flu. So it’s a good idea to get your annual flu jab and the pneumococcal jab if you’re eligible. You can get them free on the NHS if you’re aged 65 or over or you have a chronic condition such as heart disease.

You need a flu jab every year as the strains of the virus in circulation change frequently. The pneumococcal jab is a one-off vaccine, which protects against a bacterium that causes pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia.

Woman's hands around a warm drink

When you’re at risk

Cold air can make it harder to breathe if you have heart or respiratory problems, so stay inside when it’s really cold if possible. Sudden changes in temperature can affect you, too, so if you’ve got a heart condition or high blood pressure, you should take medical advice before using saunas or steam rooms, and cold plunge pools are probably best avoided. Although some hardy souls enjoy a Christmas Day dip or even swim in the sea all through winter, it’s generally not advisable to do this if you have a heart condition. However, if you’re considering it, check with your doctor first.

If you’re exercising outdoors, build up gradually and wear plenty of layers that you can remove so you stay comfortably warm without overheating.

Look out for others

Make sure elderly friends and neighbours are warm enough and have stocks of food and medicines so they don’t need to go out when it’s very cold. If you’re worried about someone, contact your local council or ring the Age UK helpline on 0800 00 99 66.

If someone you know has been exposed to the cold and is distressed and confused with slow, shallow breathing or is unconscious, they could have hypothermia. Call 999 for an ambulance and wrap them in something warm. If they’re conscious, give them a non-alcoholic warm drink.

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