Cold weather can be very harmful, especially for people age 65 or older: it weakens the immune system, increases blood pressure, thickens the blood and lowers body temperature, increasing risks of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, and chest infections. For those with long term health conditions such as COPD; bronchitis, emphysema; diabetes, heart or kidney disease, cold weather and winter illnesses can make health problems like these far worse.
More people die in the winter months than the non-winter months, with around 25,000 excess winter deaths in England each year. Cold and damp homes can contribute to poor mental health and social isolation, indeed, one study has shown that residents of the 25% coldest homes have around a 20% greater risk of dying during the winter months than those in the warmest homes.
It's a known fact that cold weather narrows the blood vessels. This is why we see an increase in things like heart attacks over winter months. There are also other practical dangers when the weather gets cold such as icy pavements, which lead to an increase in slips and falls, particularly amongst the elderly.
It's not all doom and gloom however, there are a number of things we can do to keep ourselves safe, healthy and protected this winter and below are my top five tips.
Heat the home
Heat your home to at least 18°C (65°F), if you can, you might prefer your living room to be slightly warmer. Remember to keep your window closed on winter nights as breathing in cold air can be bad for your health because it increases the risk of chest infections. What's more, to ensure that heat doesn't escape your home, fit draught proofing to seal any gaps around windows and doors making sure you have loft insulation if necessary. If you have cavity walls, make sure they are insulated too. For more tips on how to make your home more energy efficient, improve your heating and keep up with energy bills, visit: www.gov.uk/phe/keep-warm
Get the flu jab
Flu is miserable; not only will it give you fever, chills, headache, aching muscles - it's likely to leave you bed-ridden for a few days at least. It is estimated that several million people get flu each winter, and last year, this led to more than 2,000 NHS intensive care admissions across the UK.
People aged 65 and over, pregnant women and those with long term health conditions are more likely to suffer complications from flu and that's why these groups are eligible for the free flu vaccine. And don't forget, if you're a carer, you're also eligible too.
Children suffer the same symptoms from flu as adults including fever, chills, aching muscles, headaches and a sore throat. Children in the under 5 age group are also more at risk of being admitted to hospital due to flu than any other age group. What's more, children are most likely to spread flu to others, so targeting them helps protect the wider community too. If you're a parent, take notice and remember that children aged 2, 3 and 4 and in school years 1, 2 and 3 are eligible for the free flu vaccination, which is a quick, needle free, nasal spray.
If you are eligible for the flu vaccination, it's free because you need it. So if you haven't had it already, talk to your GP or pharmacist today and protect yourself against flu.
Wear lots of thin layers - clothes made from cotton, wool or fleecy fibres are particularly good at helping to maintain body heat. Several layers trap warm air better than one bulky layer. Also wear good-fitting slippers and shoes with a grip to avoid slipping.
Lead a healthy lifestyle
Exercise is good for you all year round, indeed, not only will moving more keep you healthy, it can keep you warm over the colder winter months. If possible, try to move around least once an hour. Remember to speak to your GP before starting any exercise plans to ensure they are tailored for your needs and abilities.
When it comes to winter eating, it can be tempting to fill up on unhealthy comfort food, but it's important to ensure you still have a healthy diet which includes five portions of fruit and veg a day. If you find yourself craving a sugary treat, try a clementine or satsuma instead, or try sweet dried fruits such as dates or raisins. Winter vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, swede and turnips can be roasted, mashed or made into soup for a comforting winter meal for the whole family. Why not explore varieties of fruit and veg that you may not normally eat.
If you do start to feel unwell over the winter months, even if it's just a cough or a cold, it's important to get help from your pharmacist before it gets more serious. Pharmacists are fully qualified to advise you on the best course of action - this can be the best and quickest way to help you recover and get back to normal. If you can't go yourself, you could always ask someone else to go for you.
Visit nhs.uk/staywell for more helpful tips and advice from the Stay Well This Winter campaign.