How cold winter weather can trigger health issues  


Winter is a season for festivities, family, friends and chestnuts roasting over the open fire.

But the colder months, shorter days and drier air usher in a host of health issues that many people may still be unaware are linked.

If you have started to feel itchy or seen a little more hair than usual in your shower drain, the cold weather could be to blame. 

Cold air has trouble maintaining moisture, leading to low humidity levels and overall drier air outdoors. Heating air blaring indoors can dry out the air as well. 

Studies show that the drier air can lead to the development of rashes on the skin, scalp issues that can cause hair loss and breathing issues.

While less common, bundling up to protect yourself from the cold could cause problems as well – as constantly taking off and putting on a hat can cause a rare form of alopecia that only one per cent of people suffer.

People who suffer from asthma may suffer from irritated airways caused by the dry air that make their symptoms even worse.

Arthritis sufferers may also notice their joints are getting stiffer and sorer.

When it is cold, the body dedicates blood to core organs, leaving the joints more stiff and causing nerve endings to be more sensitive – leading to more pain.

The lack of daylight can also cause harms to both physical and mental health. 

Perhaps you’ve heard of the ‘winter blues’, which are not just a myth but a symptom of a recognized medical condition. 

Not getting enough time in the sun can deprive the body of vitamin D, leading to loss of skeletal tissue and brittle bones.

More darkness outside can even disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm, causing seasonal depression – and worsening symptoms for some people who already suffer mental health issues.

During the pandemic, many learned the harsh truth that winter changes our behavior, forcing us to spend more time indoors to shelter from the elements, driving up the risk of viruses spreading.

This led to Covid case and hospitalization rates surging during the winter months of recent years. While Covid has subsided in 2022, the flu and other respiratory viruses has taken its place.

MEDailyMail.com reveals what health issues could erupt this winter – and how to treat them 

Many health problems erupt for people over winter. These include seasonal depression and brittle bones caused by changes to sunlight, coughing, hair loss and dry skin caused by a lack of humidity in the air and joint pain caused by the temperature itself

Dry skin 

A Japanese research team wrote in 2013 that dry skin over winter is caused by a decline in a molecule called ceramide in the stratum corneum, the outer most layer of the skin.

Ceramides are fats that help the skin retain moisture and strengthen the skin as a barrier to the outside world. 

Dr Christine Ko (pictured), a dermatology professor at Yale University, told DailyMail.com that the dry winter air can rob a person's skin of moisture and lead to itchiness and rashe

Dr Christine Ko (pictured), a dermatology professor at Yale University, told DailyMail.com that the dry winter air can rob a person’s skin of moisture and lead to itchiness and rashe

The Japanese scientists recommend eucalyptus extract – drawn from the leaves of a tree native to Australia and Oceania, as a way to reinvigorate and protect ceramides in the skin. 

Going from outside, where the weather is extremely cold, to indoors, where heat is blaring, could cause skin issues according to Dr Christine Ko, a dermatology professor at Yale University.

‘What happens with winter and with the cold, and then going in the heat, people who are prone to have a rash [will suffer one],’ Dr Ko explained. 

The changes in temperature and exposure to dry air can lead to worsening symptoms for people who suffer from eczema.

Hydration is key to skin health and the outdoor air may rob a person’s skin or moisture, causing it to become dry and flaky or even break out into a rash. 

She also says that the indoor air during winter presents a challenge to your skin as well. Because many buildings have their heat on all the time, indoor air is extremely dry.

Dr Ko said that when a person turns on their indoor heating they must also start to put on lotion each day to keep their skin in tact. A humidifier could also be a valuable tool to hydrate the indoor air.

‘If you know every winter you get it than before you turn your heat on – or when you turn your heat on inside – then its time to [start putting the lotion],’ she said. 

Scratching the rash could be the worst thing a person does. By rubbing the itch, a person is removing some protections their skin has and making the situation even worse.

The Yale expert describes it as the ‘itch-scratch’ cycle, where a person will make their rash even worse by trying to treat it by scratching.

In most extreme examples this can lead to bleeding at the site of the rash or even infection if bacteria enters a wound.

Dr Ko recommends patients use an oil-based moisturizing cream whenever they leave the shower. The lips can be an often overlooked site for dry skin as well. She recommends frequent use of chap-stick or Vaseline.

For people with severe rashes, she recommends seeing a doctor to treat their condition with topical steroids.

In very rare cases, a person’s skin could even be allergic to the cold. Cold urticaria is a rare condition where a person will experience symptoms like hives and swelling of the hands and lips within minutes of stepping into the cold.

The exact cause is not known. It affects an estimated 0.5 per cent of the population. It is more frequent in younger people.

There are no defined treatments for cold urticaria, and sufferers are advised to bundle up and spend as little time as possible outdoors during cold weather months. 

Hair loss 

WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF HAIR LOSS?

It is perfectly normal for people to lose small amounts of hair as it replenishes itself and, on average, people can shed between 50 and 100 hairs per day.

However, if people start to lose entire patches of hair or large amounts of it it can be more distressing and potentially a sign of something serious.

Pattern baldness is a common cause of hair loss as people grow older. At least half of men over the age of 50 will lose some of their hair just through the ageing process, according to the British Association of Dermatologists.

Women may lose their hair as they grow older, too.

Other, more concerning causes of hair loss include stress, cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, weight loss or an iron deficiency.

Most hair loss is temporary, however, and can be expected to grow back. 

Specific medical conditions which cause the hair to fall out include alopecia, a disorder of the immune system; an underactive or overactive thyroid; the skin condition lichen planus or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. 

People should visit their doctor if their hair starts to fall out in lumps, falls out suddenly, if their scalp itches or burns, and if hair loss is causing them severe stress.

Dry skin can also mean a dry scalp, leaving a person vulnerable to hair loss. Using a hat to keep your head and ears warm could also be a source of hair loss, experts warn.

Like the rest of the skin, scalp dryness is caused by the low humidity in winter air outdoors, and the dry heated air when a person is inside.

A person suffering from a dry scalp could feel itchiness and inflammation on their scalp. This dries out and damages hair follicles, leading to hair loss as a result.

People who suffer from dandruff will also often see more flakes on their clothes, as the dry air causes more flakiness on their skin.

Itching a dry scalp can also make hair loss more likely as the rubbing damages hair follicles and can cause breakage.

A 2009 report led by the manufacturing giant Proctor & Gamble writes that people dealing with dry scalp conditions are less likely to maintain or grow their hair. 

One of these conditions is psoriasis, a common condition where a person experiences scaly and irritated skin on their scalp. Low levels of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun and dry air over winter cause symptoms to exacerbate.

Psoriasis is linked to hair loss as the dry skin leads to follicle breakage, and itching can also damage the hair.

The cold weather itself is not the culprit in many of these cases, though. A Swiss study from 2009 found that just temperature alone was not enough to cause changes to the hair, and that there is no natural cycle causing a person to lose their hair at certain parts of the year. 

This means that using shampoos and conditioners that replenish the scalp’s moisture can help a person stave off hair loss, even when the weather is cold.

Wearing a hat over the winter can cause damage to a full head of hair as well.  

Constantly wearing a head covering, and putting it on then taking it off throughout the day, can pull on the hair follicles and cause some to come out.

This leads to a condition called traction alopecia. People who tie their hair into tight ponytails or buns may suffer the condition as well.

While alarming, hair loss caused by a dry scalp, psoriasis or traction alopecia is usually not permanent and person’s hair will return with proper maintenance. 

Seasonal depression 

Cold weather comes with less sunlight during the day, and experts warn this could leave many people feeling down.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), often known as seasonal depression, is a condition that affects 10 to 20 per cent of US adults.

People who suffer from the condition will often feel depressive symptoms during the dog-days of winter that they did not experience in previous months. 

Dr Amin Etkin (pictured), a professor at Stanford University, told DailyMail.com that the lack of sunlight over winter can disrupt a person's circadian rhythm and lead to mental health issues

Dr Amin Etkin (pictured), a professor at Stanford University, told DailyMail.com that the lack of sunlight over winter can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm and lead to mental health issues

It is most common in women, younger people and those that are already suffering from a mood disorder. People who already suffer from anxiety or depression along with SAD will have worsened symptoms during these months.

Dr Amin Etkin, a professor at Stanford University, told DailyMail.com the reason people feel sadder when it is dark outside is tied to the body’s circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that a person’s natural body processes operate on. While many associate it with sleep alone, its impact on the body go much deeper.

‘The light in our environment affects our circadian rhythms,’ Dr Etkin explains.

‘Your body at all levels, brain and an outside the brain, responds to circadian rhythms. Even at the level of single cell genes whose activity is turned on and off in a circadian pattern.

‘There’s a very strong entrainment across multiple levels in your body and as the the timing of the world around you shifts with respect to the amount of light and when things get darker and so forth.’

A 2002 study from Australian researchers found that the amount of serotonin transmitted throughout the brain was lower over winter than in other seasons.

Serotonin is a hormone crucial for regulating emotions, and low levels are tied to anxiety and depression symptoms. 

Dr Etkin also says that some people may be more sensitive to changes in circadian rhythms than others, and those people are more likely to suffer from SAD during colder weather months where there is less sunlight.

‘There’s a portion of people who have really altered circadian rhythms are either delayed the rhythm is delayed relative to what it should be or for advanced too far,’ he continued.

‘That alters their sleep that alters their mood, sleep and mood in turn impact cognition. So you see all of the pieces that come into play.’

While there is no exact solution to SAD or other end of summer blues, people can take steps to manage and reduce the impact.

He recommends adjusting a person’s sleep schedule, if possible, to maximize their exposure to sunlight throughout the day. 

This can include going to bed and waking up earlier during the day to make sure you are awake for the early hours of daylight and spend less waking time during the dark of night. 

Dr Etkin also recommends investing in a SAD lamp, products that can mimic the UV rays of sunlight on a schedule set by a person in their own home. 

A Canadian study published in 1996 found that light therapy was effective at relieving SAD symptoms in ten patients by preventing the loss of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is converted into serotonin within the brain. 

Joint pain

Dr Shelby Johnson (pictured), an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, told DailyMail.com, that the body devotes resources away from the joints in the cold, leading to worse pain from arthritis

Dr Shelby Johnson (pictured), an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, told DailyMail.com, that the body devotes resources away from the joints in the cold, leading to worse pain from arthritis

People who suffer from arthritis or other joint pains likely already know that these winter months can be brutal to their knees and elbows. 

Joint pain can have many causes, including viral infections, inflammatory conditions like tendinitis or just general injury.

It is most commonly associated with arthritis, though. Conditions like osteoarthritis – where cartilage between the bones wears away – or rheumatoid arthritis – where joint tissues swells, are most common.

Dr Shelby Johnson, an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, told DailyMail.com that people who already suffer these conditions will likely see them worsen when temperatures drop.

‘We see it commonly where people with joint pain and arthritis have exacerbations or worsening of their pain in winter,’ she explained.

Why exactly this is the case has not yet been determined by experts, but Dr Johnson has a few theories.

When the weather turns cold the body circulates less blood to the joints – instead devoting resources to the body’s core. Dr Johnson says that this can lead to joint stiffness, and pain as a result.

The body is also more sensitive to pain in the cold, she says. Blood flow to the bodies nerve endings is limited.

A Moroccan study published in 2020 found that 117 patients who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis reported more tender joints and harsher pain during winter when compared to spring.

Frequent exposure to cold weather has even been linked to the development of rheumatoid arthritis. 

A 2017 Swedish study of 5,000 laborers found that people who worked outside were 50 per cent more likely to develop the condition.

Dr Johnson recommends that people who know they suffer from joint pain layer up this winter and avoid taking part in outdoor activities if possible.

She adds that an overall healthy lifestyle can help reduce all symptoms of arthritis, even those that are not tied to the cold.

Indoor exercise can be a crucial tool as well, she adds: ‘a lot of people with joint pain think that using their joints can exacerbate their symptoms but keeping them moving and fit, keeping them mobile.’

Dry lungs

Dr Raj Dasgupta (pictured), a pulmonologist at the University of Southern California, told DailyMail.com that dryer winter air can lead to irritation of a person's airwaves

Dr Raj Dasgupta (pictured), a pulmonologist at the University of Southern California, told DailyMail.com that dryer winter air can lead to irritation of a person’s airwaves

A winter cough is a common nuisance for people who suffer from chronic lung conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – but even others can face breathing issues this winter.

Dr Raj Dasgupta, a pulmonologist at the University of Southern California, told DailyMail.com that the work the body has to do to stay warm during these months can cause more stress on a person’s breathing.

‘When you are cold your body works harder to stay warm. That puts a lot of additional stress and strain on both your heart and lungs in general,’ he explained. 

The doctor explains there are two types of lung issues a person can face. 

Obstructive problems – where the air has trouble escaping the lungs – include asthma and COPD.  Restrictive issues occur when the air has trouble entering the lungs.  Both are affected by cold, dry, air.

Like other conditions, the dry air can also cause harm to a person’s lungs, he continued ‘a lot of research has shown that its not just the cold air, but it could be the dryness of the cold air.

‘[Cold and dry air] make your airways tighten. It decreases air flow in and out of the lungs… that tightening of the airwaves makes it a lot harder for air to get in and out.’

Dry air can also cause irritation of the lung’s airways. This can constrict airways even more and worsen symptoms of asthma and COPD.

A research team from Finland found in a 2016 study that asthma sufferers were significantly up to 47 per cent likely to experience shortness of breath, 18 per cent more likely to suffer a cough, and 91 per cent more likely to experience shortness of breath over winter when compared to other months.

Scientists also noted increases in wheezing, phlegm production and chest pain among the asthmatics. 

Another Finnish study, published in 2018, of 7,330 patients found that nearly-one-five asthma sufferers had symptoms so severe during winter that it interfered with their ability to perform every day tasks.

Even for people without a chronic lung condition, the dry air can make viral infections like the flu and the respiratory syncytial virus more common.

Some even suffer frequent bloody noses as a result of their dry and irritated airwaves.

Dr Dasgupta recommends asthmatics keep their inhaler or any other medication on hand when they take part on outdoor activities. 

He also tells his patients to wrap a scarf around their mouth as a trick to get more moisture into their airwaves. Instead of losing moisture when exhaling and then replacing it with dry air – moisture will be caught in the scarf and reenter the lungs when inhaled.     

Brittle bones

Many people will suffer osteoporosis in older age, as their skeletal tissue breaks down but is no longer replaced at the same frequency. This can lead to weak, brittle, bones that fracture easily.

Bone loss is often worse over winter, as the body has more trouble absorbing the calcium that is crucial to a strong skeleton.

People often spend more time indoors over summer, and overall exposure to the sun is also lower as daylight hours decrease.

The sun is an excellent source of vitamin D. The vitamin helps the body helps the body process and properly absorb calcium.

A 1996 Boston University report states that vitamin D3, acquired via sun exposure, is necessary to keep calcium levels in the normal range for cellular and bone function. Because the vitamin is rare in food, sunlight is the primary source for many people.

As a result, people likely have lower bone health during these months. This becomes especially worrying for the elderly – where osteoporosis is already a frequent issue.

Dr Johnson, from the Mayo Clinic, recommended that elderly people bundle up before going outdoors, and take caution to avoid falls. Small injuries suffered from a tumble can be devastating for people who already suffer brittle bones.

Calcium and vitamin D supplements can also help weather the effect of bone loss as well.

A 1998 study of 60 elderly women researchers at Maine’s St Joseph Hospital, found that using a daily calcium supplement could stop bone loss from occurring. The control group, who used a placebo, in the study lost three per cent of bone density over the study period.

Drinking calcium-rich milk each day can minimize bone loss as well, the study found.

An Australian study published in 2004 found that vitamin D3 and calcium supplements stopped 43 people from suffering excess bone loss during winter months over a two year period.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk