The mornings are cold and crisp, you can see your breath vapour in the air, and the trees are getting balder by the minute – it’s clear the start of December has marked a turning point for the weather, but how is this drop in temperature impacting your body?
If you’ve got a permanently runny nose but don’t have any other symptoms of a cold, it’s time to blame to weather. The nose actually has a mechanism to warm the air you breathe during winter – and it involves a shed load of mucus.
When cold, dry air enters your nostrils it stimulates the nerves in your nose, according to David King, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland.
These nerves send a message to your brain letting it know that it’s really quite nippy outside and your brain then responds by increasing blood flow to your nose, which helps warm the passing air on its way to your lungs.
It also makes your nose more moist – or snotty – to increase the humidity of the air entering your body. The phenomenon is also known as “cold-induced rhinitis” or “skier nose”, and some people are more sensitive than others.
When the weather is cold, your automatic response is often to hunch and tense up – and this probably isn’t the best news for your shoulders and back.
Science suggests the cold weather can impact pain levels – but it’s not entirely clear why. One Swedish study looked into whether working in a cold environment increased the risk of musculoskeletal symptoms in the neck and lower back. It revealed the prevalence of neck and low back pain was higher among construction workers who worked outdoors in the cold than among foremen and office workers.
Overall, it showed an increased risk of developing low back and neck pain with decreased outdoor temperature. Meanwhile, a separate study of people in Finland also found that colder temperatures were associated with greater levels of musculoskeletal pain.
Dry, Flaky Skin
Dr Bav Shergill, of the British Association of Dermatologists, tells HuffPost UK that cold and windy weather can strip skin of moisture leading it to become dry, chapped and prone to flaking. “Dry skin is a common problem in the cold weather which can affect anybody,” says Dr Shergill. “However, certain skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis can be worsened during the winter months as the changing temperatures and dry air causes flare-ups.”
As you’d probably expect, areas of the body which are often exposed to the elements are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of winter weather. This includes the face and hands, as well as the lips, where the skin is thinner than on other parts of the body.
So, is there anything you can do about it? Firstly, moisturise your skin and lips regularly, reapplying throughout the day as necessary. “Wrap up warm when spending time outdoors, as when the skin is protected from the elements it is less likely to dry out,” advises Dr Shergill.
“If your skin does become irritated in winter, avoid wearing harsher fabrics such as wool next to the skin, as it could aggravate the skin and worsen the problem. Opting for something like fleece also has the benefit of being warm and soft.”
Make sure you drink lots of water to keep your skin hydrated and, lastly, avoid products which are alcohol-based and contain fragrance, especially if you’re prone to dry, irritated skin.
Painful Hands And Feet
Some people might experience particularly painful hands and feet extremely in cold weather – this could be a sign of Raynaud’s disease.
The condition (pronounced ‘ray-nose’) is thought to impact one in five people, says Dr Rachel Byng-Maddick, consultant rheumatologist at the Lister Hospital. Yet a staggering number of people have never heard of it. “Public awareness of Raynaud’s, and the diseases it can be associated with, are low.”
Raynaud’s occurs when small blood vessels in extremities of the body – such as your hands and feet – are over-sensitive to changes in temperature. Fingers or toes become numb and painful, and change colour (blue or white) before turning bright red on rewarming.
Our body is constantly trying to stay at its optimum internal temperature – around 37.5°C – so that our cells and organs are protected from damage.
Sudden changes in temperature cause thermal stress for the body, which has to work harder to maintain its constant temperature, according to Dr Niamh O’Kennedy, a research scientist in cardiovascular health. “This type of stress has a profound, direct effect on the viscosity of your blood, making it thicker, more sticky and more likely to clot,” she adds.
Clotting can cause genuine health problems for some – more heart attacks and strokes are reported in the days following a cold spell, according to Public Health England, which urges people to turn up the heating to at least 18°C when it’s cold outside.
“This is the temperature at which we start to see changes in the body, when the blood starts to thicken,” it advises. “So, temperatures above this are best to protect your health.” You should also make sure you move about throughout the day to keep blood flowing around the body, and wear warm clothes.