Winter health sorted

It may only just be November, but walk down any high street and you'd think it was Christmas tomorrow. The clocks have gone back, we're galloping towards the shortest day of the year and temperatures are plummeting. What happened to the long hot days of summer? And how can we come through the winter months unscathed?

Seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is thought to affect up to one in 50 people in the UK, with as many as one in eight suffering from the milder form, 'winter blues'. Symptoms of depression most commonly come on between September and November and start to lift in early spring. Although the cause isn't certain, it's thought to be linked to lack of sunlight affecting mood-related chemicals in the brain. Most of the symptoms are similar to those of other forms of depression, although overeating is more common than the loss of appetite more often linked with depression. Unlike 'normal' depression, light may be the key - sitting in front of a light box with a light source of at least 2500 lux (about 10 times that of ordinary light bulbs) may be enough to control or at least reduce your symptoms.

Dry Skin and Eczema
Dry skin may seem trivial compared to depression, but it's a very common (and potentially irritating) side effect of winter. Eczema is an itchy skin condition that's not linked just to having an allergic tendency. It can be made worse by heat, cold, dryness, wetness or wind - all the conditions we tend to put our bodies through when we go out in the biting cold then rush in to stand in front of the radiator. If you have eczema, you're more prone than most to dry skin - but the symptoms can affect anyone.

Your skin suffers all sorts of insults in cold, wet weather, and regardless of the cause, moisturizing is the mainstay of treatment. On the whole, the gunkier the cream, the more effective it is - ointments tend to last longer than creams. As a doctor, I spend much of my time telling patients to avoid overtreatment, but it's pretty much impossible to overdose on moisturiser. Unscented, non-perfumed moisturising creams are less likely to irritate the skin and need to be applied several times a day for best effect.

Chilblains and Raynaud's disease
Raynaud's disease and the painful red, itchy lumps of chilblains are both common winter conditions. Most sufferers know that they're both linked to getting cold, so many of my patients rush in and put their hands on the radiator to warm them up after they've been outside. Too late! You need to avoid getting cold in the first place, and warming up too fast once you're chilled to the bone just makes matters worse.

The biggest mistake is assuming that keeping hands and feet warm is enough. Humans (and especially women) tend to regulate whole body temperature by shutting off circulation to the hands and feet. Avoid chilling in the first place by keeping your whole body warm with layers, as well as wearing gloves and thick socks.

Coughs and colds
Coughs and colds are another unwelcome winter addition. If you suffer from chest conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) you may need to seek medical help earlier. For the rest of us, time and patience are the only really effective treatment unless you have a 'red flag' symptom like shortness of breath, sharp chest pain when you breathe or coughing up blood (see a doctor promptly if you get any of these).

My patients often want a miracle cure - but dull as it may be, the best evidence for avoiding these winter viral infections lies with regular exercise, a balanced healthy diet and a good sleep pattern. Sometimes, common sense really is the only thing that makes sense.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Egton Medical Information Systems Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.