This month we answer questions you sent us about cold weather myths. Here’s our take on what you can do to stay healthy when those chilly winds blow.
Q: My mother always said that going outside in cold weather with my hair wet would cause me to catch a cold. Is this true?
A: It’s an old wives’ tale that you can catch a cold by running around in the winter with wet hair or even without a hat on. Research shows that being chilled or wet has no effect on whether or not people catch the common cold.
And by the way, here’s another myth: Starve a cold and feed a fever. Or is it the other way around? Doesn’t matter, actually. Whether you have a cold or a fever, you should eat normally (unless normally means a grease-soaked buffet). The important thing for both is to stay hydrated—especially if you have a fever. Lots of fluid will help flush your whole body of infection. And rest, rest, rest—it helps your immune cells prepare for the fight.
Q: Cold weather seems to make my skin drier and more raw: true or false?
A: True. There is less humidity in the air in the winter. If your skin’s looking as if you just did the hubba-hubba in a bed of mashed strawberries, it might be a case of the common skin condition eczema. This is a type of allergic reaction, and it’s easily treated with inexpensive skin moisturizers. It’s especially common during the winter, when the dry air causes little breaks in the skin, letting in chemicals that rake over your skin, particularly your hands. Treat your skin like it’s an athlete working out in the heat—keep it hydrated. After your daily shower, while you’re still damp, immediately apply Vaseline or a gentle, fragrance-free cream (Eucerin, Keri, Nivea) so the moisture is locked in—and the rash-irritating dryness is kept out.
Q: I always seem to gain weight in the winter. Does cold weather makes people pack on the pounds?
A: No one knows for sure, because the data is contradictory. First, it’s possible that indoor heating in the winter can make you fatter, even though it may make you less cranky. If you’re in a cold room, your body has to do more metabolic work to bring your temperature to normal, thus increasing your metabolism. The same is true in a too-warm room, but in reverse: Your body has to work to cool you down.
On the other hand, one theory about metabolism says that cold temperature stimulates appetite. (Ever notice you eat more during the winter or that you’re not hungry after exercising when your body’s warm?) Also, we know that people with low body temperature have lower metabolisms and will be prone to gaining weight.
So the bottom line is we really aren’t sure whether or not winter adds to weight gain. But we do know people can use cold weather as an excuse to eat more and exercise less (especially if they like to walk or run outside), so be especially vigilant about your habits now.
Q: My hands and feet sometimes get tingly in the cold weather, and I heard it’s from poor circulation. True or false?
A: Maybe true. What you have sounds like Raynaud’s (say “ray-NODES”). Raynaud’s phenomenon is a problem with blood flow. During an attack of Raynaud’s, your body overreacts to cold temperatures by restricting blood flow to conserve heat or to keep your temperature near normal. So to prevent your vital inner organs from losing heat, your body limits blood flow to your hands and feet. This makes your fingers or toes feel cold and numb and sometimes turn white or blue. In most cases, this lasts for a short time when your body overreacts to cold temperatures. As blood flow returns and the fingers or toes warm, they may turn red and begin to throb and feel painful. In rare cases, Raynaud’s affects the nose or ears.
There are two kinds of Raynaud’s. Primary Raynaud’s is the most common form and occurs on its own; it has no known cause. For most people, Primary Raynaud’s is more of a nuisance than a disability. Secondary Raynaud’s is also called Raynaud’s Syndrome. It most often forms as part of another disease, such as chronically poor circulation, or may be a symptom of another disease such as lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis or atherosclerosis. Taking certain medicines, using vibrating power tools for several years, smoking or having frostbite may also cause Raynaud’s Syndrome.
Q: After Dec. 15 or after the temperature goes below 40 degrees, it’s too late to get the flu vaccine. True or false?
A: False. The flu virus is activated by temperatures below 55 degrees—that’s why it comes in winter—and the flu season extends way into the new year. You can get a flu shot before or during flu season. The best times to get the shot are in September or October, but getting a flu shot in or after December will still protect you going forward. (Getting the flu shot won’t stop a flu bug already enjoying your hospitality—so get the vaccine now and early next fall so the bugs get bounced before they can settle in.)
Q: My spouse says if you have a heart condition, your most vigorous exercise in the winter should be watching your favorite college football team play a bowl game on Jan. 1.
A: False for two reasons. First, watching your favorite team play can be extremely stressful and is associated with an increase in heart attacks and strokes. So is arguing with your spouse. Just tell him that gently as you walk in front of the TV during commercials, or better yet, replace your couch with an exercise bike. Pedaling slowly (at whatever rate your doc says you can) probably will help his heart get stronger and allow him to have more energy.