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Published on October 26, 2016

Common illnesses during cold weather and how to avoid them

As temperatures drop over the fall and winter months, our risk for contracting illness only goes up.

As temperatures drop over the fall and winter months, our risk for contracting illness only goes up.

By Joanna Hlavacek, Lawrence Journal World reporter

As temperatures drop over the fall and winter months, our risk for contracting illness only goes up.

Here, Dr. Karen Evans, a family medicine specialist at Lawrence’s Mt. Oread Family Practice, identifies a few common cold-weather ailments (turns out, there’s more than just flu on the horizon) and how to best avoid them.

Seasonal allergies

“Allergies tend to kick the whole thing off,” Evans says of the onslaught of viral diseases that tend to hit after the start of school in the fall and continue into December.

Those suffering from seasonal allergies are more likely to contract a virus because their immune systems are already under attack. Often, Evans says, patients experiencing prolonged viral symptoms may also be battling allergies, “even if they don’t realize” it.

Just because summer’s over doesn’t mean there aren’t still allergens floating around. Mold, ragweed and dust mites, all prevalent in the early fall months, are some of the most common seasonal-allergy triggers.

Bronchitis and pneumonia

While colder weather does indeed constrict blood flow, leading to higher blood pressure, “the majority of what we see tends to be respiratory in nature,” Evans says of fall and winter ailments.

In her practice, that often means bronchitis and pneumonia. “A lot of times, those types of things are exacerbations of (chronic conditions like) asthma and COPD, which means they become acutely worse,” Evans says.

Gastroenteritis

As temperatures cool down, family practitioners will sometimes see an occasional flare-up of gastroenteritis, aka stomach flu, Evans says.

“Sometimes people think they’ve got the flu,” she says, but “most of the time it’s a different virus” that causes the diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever (not all at once, necessarily) associated with gastroenteritis.

Seasonal flu

A list of cold-weather illnesses wouldn’t be complete, of course, without influenza. Flu season generally kicks off around October and peaks between December and March, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While young children, seniors (anyone over 65 is considered at risk) and those with chronic conditions such as asthma and COPD are probably the most vulnerable, flu can infect pretty much anyone, and with serious consequences, Evans says.

“It’s the healthier people who tend to get the sickest, believe it or not,” she says. “I’ve heard of cases where a young, healthy person with normal lung function ends up in the ICU.”

That’s why Evans stresses the importance of flu shots. They’re available at just about any doctor’s office or pharmacy around town, and also at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, 200 Maine St., where prices range from $21 to $57 for a high-dose version for those 65 and older.

The Health Department, which offers flu shots on a walk-in basis during clinic hours, recommends the vaccination for everyone 6 months and older.

What else can I do?

Guard your body against viruses, Evans suggests, with vitamin C, zinc and echinacea. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids (eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day being the old stand-by recommendation) and getting enough sleep (most health authorities suggest seven to nine hours for the average adult).

“As life gets busy during this time of year, that’s hard to do, but it would probably make more of a difference than anything else,” Evans says of shut-eye.

Other common-sense strategies: Wash your hands, and make sure to wipe down publicly shared surfaces such as grocery carts, phones and door knobs often, Evans says.

Already feeling symptoms? Sleeping in colder, drier air (with your mouth open) in the fall and winter months can lead to a sore throat when you wake up. To that end, Evans recommends a humidifier in the bedroom. Or, in the morning, try a cup of hot tea to soothe a scratchy throat fast.

“If you can do that and feel better, you can probably avoid going to the doctor,” Evans says.

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