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Silver Cross Hospital physician explains winter health risks

Silver Cross Hospital physician explains surprising risks of winter weather

NEW LENOX – Jenny Alonzo, an Oswego school teacher, said cold temperatures just make her body hurt.

She also gets headaches in the winter that she said her doctors believe are from vasoconstriction of her blood vessels.

Margo McIntyre of Morris always is cold during winter and said it’s hard to bear.

“I was born in Wisconsin and have endured a lot of cold weather,” McIntyre said. “It never bothered me until I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Since then, the cold weather is just painful.”

Getting a little chilly in the cold weather and dreaming of a Gulf of Mexico vacation are pretty normal; but for others who have special considerations or pre-existing conditions, it’s essential to keep warm when the thermometer drops.

It’s well-known the physical effort that comes with shoveling wet, heavy snow can send some into cardiac arrest. Frostbite also is common knowledge, and people generally know that keeping extremities warm when out in the cold helps prevent it.

But low temperatures can affect bodies in other, more surprising ways. Studies show more people die during the winter months for reasons that have nothing to do with heavy physical activity or frostbite. This occurs all over the world, in cooler and in warmer climates.

For instance, California sees a 33 percent increase in heart attacks during the winter months when temperatures decrease. Low temperatures significantly increase deaths by strokes as well, and deaths from respiratory diseases can climb by 47 percent during the season, according to a summary of studies presented in the online journal, CO2 Science at

So how is it that cold kills? Silver Cross Hospital pulmonologist and critical-care physician Dr. Salah Lababidy said one way is by increasing blood pressure. When blood pressures increase, so do strokes.

Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system from the cold causes the release of stress hormones, Lababidy said, increasing blood pressure.

“So there are more strokes in cold climates and with decreasing temperatures,” Lababidy said, “because of the increase in blood pressure. Both the diastolic and systolic pressures can increase by 20 or 25 millimeters of mercury. That is significant.”

Blood pressure increases are seen in those who have underlying conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and irregular heartbeat. Healthy individuals will not have the same outcome, he said.

Cold weather also affects kidneys, Lababidy said, causing what’s called cold diuresis, and an increase in urine production. When there is less fluid in the blood, there can be hemoconcentration, which increases the risk for clotting, leading to heart attacks and strokes.

These cold effects can last for weeks, as opposed to what heat does to the body, which lasts only a day or two.

The immune system also is compromised by the cold, according to Lababidy, especially in the lungs. One type of white blood cell, the neutrophil, becomes relatively dysfunctional in cold weather, he said. Neutrophils are an essential part of our body’s response to bacteria, cancer cells and other antigens.

Lababidy said respiratory diseases also significantly increase during the winter. One reason is that breathing in cold air has a direct effect on lung tissue. It can trigger a reaction in those who have asthma, he said. Cold temperatures also can indirectly lead to more colds and influenzas.

“Flu and cold viruses survive better in cold weather,” he said. “Plus, we are more vulnerable to those viruses in cold weather. Living in cold climates has a significant risk for respiratory illness.”

That’s why Alonzo said she likes to head south to Florida. Lababidy said he has many patients who spend their winters in the South, and they tend to have fewer illnesses.

To keep warm, Alonzo said she uses hand warmers. McIntyre said it helps to wear layers and to take a hot shower. A nice cup of hot coffee doesn’t hurt, either, she added.

Lababidy said the big picture is to make sure one feels warm.

“People feel cold differently,” Lababidy said. “Your body will tell you if you’re comfortable. You don’t want to feel cold. Listen to your body.”

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