People used to think the cold weather actually caused illnesses. That’s why the common cold is called a “cold”. What we now know is that the colder, shorter days mean that we spend more time indoors. You can pick up a host of viruses through increased time spent inside and in close proximity to others who might be infected. Also, the lower temps cause decreased blood flow to the ears, nose and hands -- making your body less able to protect itself from pathogens and aggravating symptoms if you are already infected.
Tips for patients: Practicing cleanliness, steering clear of sick friends and family, dressing warmly, exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet can all help you ward off viruses during the winter.
Older patients are more susceptible to depression, especially in the winter months when they are more isolated. Bad weather makes it hard for senior citizens to get out and socialize and engage in their favorite activities. As the winter drags on and elderly people are more isolated, they can become depressed. Also, patients may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression triggered by a lack of sunshine and shorter days.
Tips for patients: Talk to your doctor about your symptoms, especially if they are disruptive to your daily routine and/or cause suicidal thoughts, or if you are not taking care of yourself properly. Look into programs that offer transportation help to and from activities, appointments, church services and more. Bundle up and get outside when you can, to soak up the Vitamin D.
If you are not used to vigorous exercise several times a week, shoveling snow could cause a heart attack. Your heart is simply not ready for the intense strain it will endure while you are shoveling snow. Cardiac death rates peak during the winter months and experts believe the spike may be because cold snaps increase blood pressure and put more strain on the heart. Also, your heart has to work harder to maintain body heat when it's cold. Heart attack signs can include any one or more of these symptoms: chest, arm, or jaw pain, ; shortness of breath; sudden fatigue or dizziness; sweating; nausea;, vomiting or irregular heartbeat.
Tips for patients: Get help when it’s time to shovel. Even if you are fit, dress warmly and take frequent breaks to warm up indoors and slow your heart rate. Stay hydrated. Invest in a lightweight ergonomic shovel or a snow blower. Don’t smoke, and limit alcohol intake. Call 911 immediately if you experience any of the heart attack warning signs.
Hypothermia happens when your body temperature drops to 95 degrees F or less, and can be fatal if it’s not detected promptly and treated properly. While hypothermia can happen to anyone, the elderly run the highest risk because their bodies often do not adjust to changes in temperature quickly and they may be unaware that they are gradually getting colder. A body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. At first, symptoms include shivering, numbness of the hands or feet, fatigue, loss of coordination, confusion and disorientation. Later symptoms include no shivering, blue-tinged skin, dilated pupils, slowed pulse and breathing, and loss of consciousness.
Tips for patients: Wear warm, multi-layered clothing with good hand and feet protection and a warm hat or hood. If you notice any signs of hypothermia, immediately move to a warmer location, remove wet clothing and wrap your body in a warm blanket to prevent further heat loss. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Warm beverages may help increase the body temperature, but do not drink alcoholic beverages. Also, do not take a hot shower or bath, because it can cause shock.
Frostbite occurs when you are exposed to cold temperatures and part of your body begins to freeze. Your face, fingers and toes are the most at-risk for frostbite. People with reduced blood circulation or who are not dressed properly are at increased risk for frostbite during frigid temperatures. Signs of frostbite include numbness, tingling or stinging, aching, and bluish or pale skin.
Tips for patients: If you plan to be outside in cold weather for an extended period of time, dress in layers of warm clothing, including protection for face, head, feet and hands. If any clothing becomes wet, remove it as it will increase your chances of getting frostbite. If you notice the signs of frostbite, get into a warm room as soon as possible. Immerse the affected area in warm (not hot) water or warm the area using body heat. Avoid rubbing or massaging the frostbitten area; doing so may cause more damage. And do not use a heating pad, heat lamp, or the heat of a stove, fireplace, or radiator for warming since affected areas are numb and can be easily burned.
What other unique patient issues do nurses face during severe winter weather? Tell us your stories!