Those cool fall breezes have started rolling in and pumpkin spice is back on the menu; what’s not to love about fall? Many people’s favorite season unfortunately has a few unique health concerns to stay on the lookout for.
Our bodies need just as much water in the fall as in the spring and summer. Since we’re not sweating, it’s easy to think that we’re not losing much. But the cold dry air outdoors and dry heated air indoors can cause your body, especially your airways, to lose hydration (more on why this is important below). The Mayo Clinic recommends About 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids a day for men and about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day for women. This can be more or less depending on factors like humidity in your region and your individual activity level.
During the dry months of autumn and winter, some steps you should take to ensure optimal hydration are eating more fruits and vegetables which are rich in water, avoiding beverages that dehydrate you such as sodas and coffee, and finally using an app to help you track your water intake and even give you reminders to have a sip now and then.
Allergies pick up in the fall with weeds and molds being the two main sources of the problem. The dry winds in the fall can allow ragweed pollen to travel hundreds of miles. At the height of ragweed season, one single ragweed plant can produce 1 billion pollen seeds, so allergies can be just as severe a problem in the fall as in the spring.
To avoid pollen, there are a few steps you can take. Track daily pollen counts in the news and avoid prolonged outdoor activities on high-pollen days. Like with sun exposure, try to stay inside during the peak hours of 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Finally, change your clothes and wash your hands upon coming back indoors since pollen can stick to skin and clothing.
3. Airborne Illness
Cold, dry weather makes it easier for airborne viruses, such as those behind cold and flu, to spread. Viruses have an outer lipid that hardens in cold weather making them more virulent. The cold weather also dries out our nasal passages making us more vulnerable to infections. More research is needed to confirm this but it’s possible the factors which make the cold and flu spread more easily in fall and winter might apply to COVID-19.
We’ve written a pretty comprehensive guide to getting ready for cold and flu season that you can read here. Some of the most important tips are to wash your hands often, get vaccinated, and stock up on supplies in case you do get sick.
For those with asthma, the cold dry air in autumn and winter poses an additional risk. Cold air can dry the airways and tighten the muscles around them decreasing your airways’ ability to clear substances. All of this increases the risk of an asthma attack.
Steps to take include taking your preventer every day, wearing a scarf over your mouth and nose, and avoiding outdoor exercise during the early morning hours when it's coldest.
5. Less Daylight
Shorter days beginning in the autumn present several health challenges. The shorter days and decreased sun exposure may cause a chemical change in the brain possibly linked to symptoms of depression. Additionally, insufficient sun exposure can throw off your sleep/wake cycle. For this, some people have found success treating their symptoms with a sun lamp or light box.
A more immediate challenge posed by shorter days is that you may be less visible to motorists when you’re out and about. A reflective patch on your backpack or bicycle can be a literal lifesaver. Runners and cyclists should wear high-visibility vests.
6. Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is crucial for bone health and immune function. You can find Vitamin D in supplement form, and in fortified foods like milk, juice, cereal and yogurt. But the primary way that you get Vitamin D is through sun exposure.
With the shorter days of autumn, your body can become Vitamin D deficient while 35% of adults in the United States have a vitamin D deficiency already. This means it’s important to get proper but safe sun exposure in the summer months. If you’re still not getting enough from diet and sun exposure, you can add in a supplement. Aim for a total of 600 IU per day and 800 IU a day if you’re elderly.
7. Arthritis Flares
Although the specific cause isn’t well understood, arthritis symptoms seem to worsen during cold weather or seasonal changes. It’s possible that the lower temperatures increase the thickness of joint fluids making them less flexible or that people are less active in these conditions leading to worse symptoms. Another theory is that changes in barometric pressure cause tendons, muscles, bones, and scar tissues to contract and expand worsening arthritis pain.
For those with arthritis, there are a few steps to take during the colder months. Since the cold weather itself causes the problems, arthritis sufferers should dress warm in layers and consider compression gloves. Also, make sure your shoes have good grip as to not slip as easily in rain or snow.
8. Heart Disease
As the weather begins to cool, it’s important to stay on top of your heart health. Cold weather can negatively affect your heart in a few ways.
- Blood vessels become narrow making it harder for blood to reach your heart
- Blood pressure typically increases in cold weather
- Your heart has to beat faster to keep warm
- Winter lifestyle choices like being less active and eating large volumes of calorie-rich foods make your heart's job just a little harder
All of these factors together result in a 30% increase in heart attacks during the winter.
To keep your heart healthy in winter try to stay active, dress in layers so that your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to keep warm, and maintain a healthy weight by approaching social situations strategically.
To help you get started, here are several blogs where we’ve covered topics including:
9. Raking Leaves
During the cooler months, people are generally less active and as a result, a little less fit. But life keeps going and leaves need to get raked or in winter, snow needs to get shoveled. It’s pretty common for people to just reach for the broom or shovel and head out the door but this can put you at risk for muscle strain, or even a heart attack.
Make sure that you get to do some stretching, warm up to get the blood flowing, and dress in layers before heading out the door to tackle your chores. Long term, you’ll want to get moderate exercise daily so that you’re not going 0-100 once it’s time to head out the door.
10. Sedentary Lifestyle
One of the biggest overall health risks during the autumn and winter is the temptation to be less active due to the cooler temperatures and shorter days. Of course, it’s good to take a break now and then but the health risks of a prolonged sedentary lifestyle are numerous including:
- Weight gain from burning fewer calories
- Worse cardiovascular conditioning making it riskier when you need to do something strenuous
- Decreased metabolism
- Decreased immune function
- Increased heart attack risk
Cold weather might zap your will to work out but we have a few tips for making the most of your cold-weather workout. If you’d still rather be indoors, consider getting a gym membership with an accountability buddy to make sure you’re more likely to go.
The dry, cool temperatures of autumn present multiple health challenges from allergies to cardiovascular events. Luckily each of these problems has steps you can take to protect yourself. For the most part, you can enjoy a healthier autumn and winter by living an overall healthier lifestyle with sufficient exercise and a healthy diet.