Health Conditions That Worsen in Cold Weather
How Winter Affects Your Body
Updated September 2022
Although cold weather is often synonymous with flu season, other conditions can also be prompted by cold weather.
When the temperatures drop, your body adapts to protect its vital organs and conserve heat. “Our bodies are designed to maintain a steady core temperature, and when the environment changes, there are mechanisms that help us regulate our internal temperatures,” explains Northwestern Medicine Internal Medicine Physician Catherine C. Cheng, MD.
One of the ways that your body adjusts to cold is by reducing blood flow to your skin; this keeps heat near your inner body. Your muscles can also produce heat by shivering, and your thyroid gland will release hormones to increase your metabolism.
Cold weather can also create conditions that make you more susceptible to injury, like slipping on ice. “Just being outside is a physical stressor,” notes Dr. Cheng. Take proper precautions by wearing appropriate clothing, shoes and accessories. Additionally, if you’re going to walk or work outside, wear shoes with a sturdy grip and walk with intention.
Below are several other conditions that may occur or worsen in cold weather.
Mental Health Issues
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that can occur during the changing of seasons, usually attributed to the lack of daylight. Making matters more complicated, some individuals, particularly the elderly, may have anxiety about leaving their house in inclement weather, which can increase feelings of isolation.
To offset these emotions, Dr. Cheng suggests sticking to a routine that includes going outside or sitting near a window every day to get natural light. You may also look into light therapy. And be sure to maintain connections with your social network.
“Notice your own patterns, and avoid falling into habits that make you less healthy during winter,” says Dr. Cheng.
The drop in temperatures can affect your skin, but even after you’ve sought shelter indoors, the heat and drop in humidity also play a role.
Tuning in to skin issues is especially important for individuals whose immune systems are compromised, says Dr. Cheng. For example, diabetes can impact your immune system and cause diabetic neuropathy, which can lead to numbness. Therefore, if a small cut occurs due to dry skin, the person may not notice, increasing the likelihood of developing an infection.
The change in both temperature and humidity also makes individuals with chronic skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema particularly susceptible to a breakout. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that produces inflamed, raised and red areas of skin or silvery scales. It is typically located on your knees, elbows or scalp. This is not to be confused with eczema, which presents as dry, itchy patches of skin. Scratching results in red raised spots, thickening of the skin and open cuts.
Not everyone will experience these triggers in the winter. Take the appropriate precautions to protect yourself. Hydrate from both the inside and outside, suggests Dr. Cheng, who adds, “I recommend using petroleum-based products and using hand sanitizer to avoid washing away the oil from your hands.”
“In general, we know that people respond to temperature in different ways,” says Dr. Cheng. Just like some may find cold weather triggers a skin condition, others may find that it worsens their asthma. “This is a generalization,” cautions Dr. Cheng. “Others may find humidity to be a trigger and experience no trouble at all with the cold.”
Respiratory infections are not uncommon in winter months. These can cause coughing, shortness of breath, increased mucus production and muscle pain. If you notice these or other symptoms, contact your physician; treatment may depend on what is causing the infection. You should also try to stay hydrated.
If you have occasionally aching joints, winter weather might act as a trigger. Although there is not enough evidence to explain the link between colder temperatures and arthritis flare-ups, studies reveal individuals with arthritis are more likely to feel discomfort when the temperatures drop.
Dr. Cheng suggests that the answer could lie in changes in barometric pressure. “Some patients report that they feel it in their joints,” says Dr. Cheng. She likens this sensation to a balloon, growing in a small, confined space between your joints. “When the pressure decreases, the pressure in your joint increases, which can lead to swelling and stiffness.”
Not only do joints tend to feel worse when this happens, but joint inflammation can also lead to decreased mobility and motivation to be active. The American College Sports Medicine recommends 30 minutes of moderate activity, five times a week (or a total of 150 minutes a week). An anti-inflammatory diet that minimizes processed foods and alcohol intake can also be beneficial. Dr. Cheng suggests consulting with your physician about recommendations.
Whether you are a winter warrior or prefer the warm glow of summer, your body naturally adapts to protect itself. Changes in sunlight, temperature, barometric pressure and humidity can cause a number of pre-existing conditions to worsen.
By taking appropriate steps, like drinking plenty of water, staying physically active and adhering to a healthy routine, you may be able to adapt to these changes in a healthier way.