Ready for Winter

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 29, 2005

With just a week left in the Christmas shopping season, gifts will be flying off the shelves. But there is one gift that’s not only free, but often overlooked in this busy time of year: The gift of health. But with a few simple steps, this gift is easily attainable, and keeps giving all year round.

Beat the sniffles

Perhaps the two most notorious enemies of winter health are cold and flu bugs. These critters can cause stuffy noses, sore throats and, of course, a very un-merry Christmas.

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Five to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu every year. And according to Maxine Lewis, a spokesperson for the Lawrence County Health Department, the best way to avoid influenza is immunization.

“First and foremost, people still need to get their flu shots,” Lewis said. “We have them here, but people need to make an appointment. But it’s recommended that they get them before the end of December, because the flu season will be in full force after the first of the year.”

Although the shot may not completely eliminate the chance of getting the flu, it will almost always reduce the symptoms. That might mean more than beating a few days of aches and fever: More than 200,000 people are hospitalized every year for flu complications in the U.S. alone.

Of course, there’s no vaccination for the common cold, but both of these bugs can be slowed by good hygiene.

“People need to cover their mouth and nose while sneezing and coughing,” Lewis said. “Wash hands often with soap and water, or clean hands with wipes that contain alcohol, those are also very good things to do to kill germs and prevent illness.”

Feeling SAD

Winter months can also bring Seasonal Affective Disorder — or SAD. That can mean depression, fatigue, increased sleeping, increased appetite, weight gain and reduced productivity.

Many more people suffer from what’s called subclinical SAD, which means that they get more lethargic, but not necessarily depressed.

What seems to bring on SAD is shortened day length. SAD is 10 times less common in Florida, where days are much longer, than in Alaska.

Treatments vary, but one of the more common is bright light therapy. With that treatment, SAD sufferers expose themselves to bright light for a half-hour every morning to help offset the shortened days.

Experts suggest that there is a chemical reason for the disorder, as the hormone serotonin, which is believed to play an important part of the biochemistry of depression, migraine, bipolar disorder and anxiety, is exceptionally low during the winter. A theory is also put forth that biological clocks are disturbed in the winter.

Whatever the cause, Lewis said that there is little rhyme or reason as to who is effected by the disorder.

“A lot of people suffer from it,” Lewis said. “And it affects some people more than it affects others. There’s no particular people that it affects more than others, but some people seem to be affected more.”

Bundling up

No one wants to look like Randy, the little brother turned immobile coat bundle in the film “A Christmas Story,” but dressing warmly can be a key to staying healthy during the winter.

Lewis suggests first wearing several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight clothing, as entrapped, insulated air, warmed by body heat, is the best protection from the cold. Also, a hat is key, because a large portion of body heat is lost through the head.

Everyone knows that keeping hands and fingers warm is important, but Lewis said that mittens are actually preferable to gloves when trying to stay toasty.

“Fingers loose will give off more heat than if you keep them together, so anything that holds parts of the body will help to keep them warm,” Lewis said. “The recommendation is even to wear a thinner pair of regular gloves, then to wear a pair of mittens on top of those. That’s particularly if you’re going to be out-of-doors.”

Driving in a Winter Wonderland

After being properly bundled, roadway safety is the next big hurdle in having a healthy holiday season. The AAA says leaving plenty of time for travel and keeping an eye on the weather are the keys.

“Be aware of your surroundings, and listen to weather and traffic conditions in places that you’ll be traveling to,” said Terri Rae Anthony, AAA Safety Advisor. “Start early, make sure you leave yourself enough time so that you will not feel hurried or forced into taking unnecessary chances. Also, avoid driving in icy conditions.”

Some car maintenance can also help with safety. These steps include making sure windows are free of dirt and grime, cleaning headlights and inflating tires, as well as making sure they have enough traction to drive on snow-covered roads.

However, it is not just how you maintain your vehicle, but how you use it that matters.

“Drivers should also increase the following distance to give themselves plenty of room to maneuver their vehicle if an emergency occurs,” Anthony added. “If you can’t stop in time to avoid hitting something, steer around it. At 45 mph it takes less than half the time to steer than to bring your car to a complete stop.”

The AAA also suggests not making any quick changes in speed or direction. If a vehicle starts to skid, they said, take your foot off of the gas or brake and steer in the direction that you wish to go. Just before you stop skidding, counter-steer until you’re going in the desired direction.

Staying safe at home

Keeping homes warm has become relatively easy with kerosene and electric heaters, but while they increase temperatures, they may also do the same for health risks.

Experts suggest when using a kerosene heater to keep a door open to the rest of the house or open a window slightly, which will reduce the chance of carbon monoxide build-up in the room.

Also, portable space heaters should be kept at least three feet from anything that can burn, including bedding, furniture and clothing. Don’t forget: never drape clothes over a space heater to drive.

One of the easiest, and most important, precautions that homeowners can take is installing a carbon monoxide (CO) alarm near bedrooms and on each floor of the home.

“Because of different kinds of equipment used in the house, like kerosene heaters, that produce CO, they need monitors for that, because those can cause death if you inhale enough of them,” Lewis said. “In addition to fire alarms, you need carbon monoxide monitors, too.”

…And a happy New Year

All these steps might seem to make the holidays even more of a hassle than they already are, but a few simple precautions can make sure that the winter months are still the happiest time of year.