The mention of winter evokes images of sparkling snowflakes and
skaters gracefully gliding across the ice. But winter can also be a time of
illness and injury, if people fail to take adequate health and safety precautions.
More than 100 viruses can cause colds, the world's most common
illness, so few people escape being exposed to at least one of them. In the
United States, most people average about three colds every year.
Once it enters the body through the nose or throat, the cold virus
begins to multiply, causing any of a number of symptoms: sore throat, sneezing,
runny nose, watery eyes, aches and pains, mild fever, nasal congestion and
coughing. A cold usually lasts a week or two.
The best way to treat a cold is to take a mild pain reliever,
avoid unnecessary activity, get as much bed rest as possible and drink plenty
of fluids, especially fruit juices. Over-the-counter cough and cold remedies
may relieve some of the symptoms, but they will not prevent, cure or even shorten
the course of the illness.
While there is no vaccine to protect you from catching a cold,
there are ways to lessen your chances of coming down with the illness. Keep up
your natural resistance through good nutrition and getting enough sleep and
exercise. Turn your thermostat down and keep the humidity up in your home. Dry
air dries out the mucous membranes in your nose and throat and causes them to
crack, creating a place where cold viruses can enter your body. Avoid direct
contact with those who have colds and wash your hands frequently.
A contagious respiratory infection, influenza is not a serious
health threat for most people. However, for the elderly or those who have a
chronic health problem, influenza can result in serious complications, such as pneumonia.
Symptoms of the flu usually develop suddenly, about three days
after being exposed to the virus. They include fever, chills, cough, sore
throat, runny nose, and soreness and aching in the back, arms and legs. Although
these are similar to those caused by cold viruses, flu symptoms tend to be more
severe and to last longer. Abdominal cramps, vomiting or diarrhea symptoms of
what is commonly called stomach or intestinal flu do not accompany influenza.
The flu is highly contagious and, if it occurs in your family or
community, there is no practical way to avoid exposure to the virus. Bed rest,
a mild pain reliever and lots of fluids are the best treatment. (Caution:
Unless advised by a physician, a child or teenager with a flu-like illness should
not take aspirin. Its use in the presence of a flu infection is linked with an
increased risk of Reye syndrome. Instead use another mild pain reliever that
does not contain aspirin.) Antibiotics are not effective against flu viruses.
Flu vaccines, while not always effective in preventing the
illness, do reduce the severity of the symptoms and protect against
complications that could develop. The shots are strongly recommended for
persons 65 years of age and older and those who suffer from such chronic health
problems as heart disease, respiratory problems, renal disease, diabetes,
anemia or any disease that weakens the body's immune system. Infants, children
and young people up to 18 years of age who are receiving long-term treatment with
aspirin should also get a flu shot. Persons allergic to eggs or who have a high
fever, however, should avoid or postpone
getting a flu shot.
Because influenza vaccine is only effective for one year and
viruses vary from year to year, it is necessary to get a flu shot every year.
In Illinois, the flu season usually begins in November and lasts until around
the middle of April. If you plan to get a flu shot do so early since it takes about
two weeks to develop full immunity. However, even a shot in January may protect
against a late winter outbreak.
Hypothermia a drop in body temperature to 95 degrees or less can
be fatal if not detected promptly and treated properly. In the United States,
about 700 deaths occur each year from hypothermia. While hypothermia can happen
to anyone, the elderly run the highest risk because their bodies often do not adjust
to changes in temperature quickly and they may be unaware that they are
gradually getting colder. The condition usually develops over a period of time,
anywhere from a few days to several weeks, and even mildly cool indoor
temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees can trigger it. If you have elderly relatives
or friends who live alone, encourage them to set their thermostats above 65
degrees to avoid hypothermia.
When the body temperature drops, the blood vessels near the
surface of the body narrow to reduce heat loss. Muscles begin to tighten to
make heat. If the body temperature continues to drop, the person will begin to
shiver. The shivering continues until the temperature drops to about 90
degrees. Temperatures below 90 degrees create a life-threatening situation.
Signs of hypothermia include forgetfulness, drowsiness, slurred
speech, change in appearance (e.g., puffy face), weak pulse, slow heartbeat,
and very slow and shallow breathing. If the body temperature drops to or below
86 degrees, a person may slip into a coma or have a death-like appearance.
If you notice these symptoms in a person, take his or her
temperature. If it is 95 degrees or below, call a doctor or ambulance or take
the victim directly to a hospital. To prevent further heat loss, wrap the
patient in a warm blanket. A hot water bottle or electric heating pad (set on
low) can be applied to the person's stomach. If the victim is alert, give small
quantities of warm food or drink.
There are several things you should not do to a hypothermia
victim. Do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not give a hot shower or bath,
since it could cause shock. Generally, do not try to treat hypothermia at home.
The condition should be treated in a hospital.
The parts of the body most affected by frostbite are exposed areas
of the face (cheeks, nose, chin, forehead), the ears, wrists, hands and feet.
Frostbitten skin is whitish and stiff and feels numb rather than painful. When
spending time outdoors during cold weather, be alert for signs of frostbite
and, if you notice any, take immediate action.
To treat frostbite, warm the affected part of the body gradually.
Wrap the area in blankets, sweaters, coats, etc. If no warm wrappings are
available, place frostbitten hands under the armpits or use your body to cover the
affected area. Seek medical attention immediately.
Do not rub frostbitten areas; the friction can damage the tissue.
Do not apply snow to frostbitten areas. Because its temperature is below
freezing, snow will aggravate the condition.