As the weather turns cold and the days grow short, visits to the doctor become more frequent. According to surveys, 51.3% of doctor visits occur during fall and winter. While this may seem like a minor difference, this means that, across the U.S., there are 4 million more doctor visits during fall and winter than during spring and summer. As winter arrives, many people start looking for the best health tips to avoid a visit to the doctor.
According to the same study, the most likely cause for a visit to the doctor during winter is an upper respiratory infection followed closely by hypertension. Although these ailments can be a minor inconvenience for most people, they can be deadly for vulnerable patients, such as people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, young children, and seniors. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So here are the best health tips for surviving winter:
Renew Your Health Insurance
November 1 through December 15 is the open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act (also known as the ACA or Obamacare). The open enrollment period for Medicare runs from October 15 to December 7. If you do not have employer-provided health insurance, this is the period for you to change plans and renew your health plan.
Health insurance plans have changed their emphasis in recent years to place more emphasis on prevention. Under the ACA, most health plans are required to cover 100% of the costs for preventive services, such as vaccinations and screening tests, at zero cost to the patient. Since one of the best health tips for surviving winter is prevention, insurance coverage for preventive services is critically important. Moreover, all health plans under the ACA must cover pre-existing conditions, like heart conditions or migraines. For patients who have chronic conditions, this coverage can provide substantial financial relief.
For health insurance plans purchased through the ACA, the plan is required to cover:
- Outpatient care
- Emergency care
- Pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care
- Mental health and substance abuse treatment
- Prescription drugs
- Rehabilitative services and devices
- Laboratory services
- Preventive and wellness services
- Chronic disease management
- Pediatric services, including pediatric oral and pediatric vision care
Prepare for the Flu
Both colds and the flu are the results of viral infection. In the case of colds, the virus is called rhinovirus. In the case of the flu, the virus is called influenza. Being able to tell the difference between rhinovirus and influenza can be life-saving in many circumstances.
- Rhinovirus: Colds rarely cause a fever. Symptoms usually come on gradually and include sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, chest congestion, and cough.
- Influenza: Flu often causes fever and aches in the muscles and joints. Symptoms are usually abrupt and include chills, fatigue, headache, chest congestion, and cough.
The most dramatic difference between colds and the flu is the prognosis. Most people recover from colds in seven to ten days. The flu, on the other hand, can be deadly. In fact, in the 2017-18 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) estimated that as many as 80,000 Americans died from the flu or complications brought on by the flu.
One of the best health tips for winter is to take a few simple steps to reduce the risk of flu. The CDC recommends that babies, children, seniors, and anyone who takes care of babies, children, or seniors receive the flu vaccine. Moreover, washing your hands thoroughly can reduce the chances of infection by the flu virus.
In the event that you suspect you have been infected by the flu virus, visit a doctor for diagnostic services and treatment. Your doctor will also give you instructions about whether you should temporarily quarantine yourself from others to avoid passing on the virus.
Clean and Maintain Your Heating System
This may seem out of place among the best health tips, but your heating system can contribute to respiratory problems and allergies that may mimic colds and flu. After sitting unused all summer, your furnace filters, ducts, and exhaust may need to be cleaned. In addition to dust and dirt that have accumulated all summer, it would not be unheard of for wildlife such as birds, insects, or small mammals to nest in a heating duct or exhaust vent.
Furnace maintenance may not just save your lungs from dust and dirt. It could also save your life. Professional heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (or HVAC) repairman can not only change the filters and clean the ducts and exhaust, but can also look for corrosion, leaks, or damage that could cause natural gas or carbon monoxide to leak into your home. These gasses can cause illness or death by asphyxiation. Natural gas is also highly flammable and causes a fire or explosion.
Besides furnace maintenance, you should also consider fireplace and chimney inspection and maintenance. Like furnace exhaust vents, chimneys can become obstructed, particularly during the spring and summer when they are not in use. An obstructed chimney can cause combustion gasses to back up into the home, possibly resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning.
Visit the Dentist
One of the best health tips is to follow your dentist’s advice and visit every six months for a cleaning and checkup. The time for one of your bi-annual visits will fall during the fall or winter.
The recommendation for dental visits is separate from your regular oral hygiene. Dental cleanings are more thorough than brushing and flossing. Moreover, dental X-rays and examinations can spot nascent problems. If these problems are caught early, treatment is much easier (and usually much less painful) than if these problems go untreated.
For example, an abscessed tooth is a bacterial infection inside a tooth or gum. The symptoms of an abscess may start as a toothache. However, as the infection worsens, it may spread. In fact, if the abscess goes untreated for long enough, the infection may spread to the jaw or even the blood.
These checkups also give you the opportunity to discuss any problems you may be having that may be related to your teeth, jaws, or gums. For example, many people are not aware that some forms of snoring and sleep apnea can be corrected with a dental appliance.
Among the best health tips is to exercise. While there may not be as many opportunities for exercise during the winter as there are during summer months, it is important to keep your cardiovascular system in shape. Guidelines suggest that 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times per week is sufficient to maintain your physical fitness. If your workouts are more vigorous, you may be able to get away with as little as 25 minutes of intense exercise three times per week.
Exercise comes with many benefits in addition to a workout for your heart and muscles. These benefits include:
- More restful sleep
- Improved mood from the release of endorphins
- Faster metabolism and weight loss
- Reduced blood pressure
- Greater flexibility and balance
- Stronger bones
- Increased sex drive
Exercise during the winter can be as simple as going to the local gym or fitness center to walk on the indoor track or treadmill or swim laps in the pool. However, if you enjoy more vigorous exercise, winter is basketball season. Similarly, many fitness centers have racquetball courts, tennis courts, and stationary bicycles.
It pays to listen to your mother — one of the best health tips for avoiding the doctor is to eat your fruit and vegetables. Eating right begins with education about nutrition. The current dietary guidelines suggest half of your plate consist of vegetables and whole fruit, with the remainder split between grains and protein. Guidelines also suggest three cups of dairy per day.
Just as important as what you eat is what you do not eat. The guidelines recommend limiting processed foods, added sugars, and fats. These foods do more harm than good.
A healthy diet can have wide-ranging effects. Most directly, a healthy diet can reduce obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, some forms of cancer, and osteoporosis. Nearly 20% of children and 33% of adults are obese. A healthy diet can help many reach a healthy weight.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is the body’s time to repair itself and prepare for the next day. The growth hormone is released to rebuild muscle. Since you do not eat while you sleep, your blood sugar levels drop, causing the body to burn stored sugars and even invade fat deposits. The immune system restores and rebuilds itself.
During sleep, the brain processes memories and emotions encountered during the preceding day. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop until it is time to wake up.
Sleep deprivation can lead to overeating, a drop in alertness, depression, and reduced attention span. Chronic lack of sleep can also have physical effects, such as increased blood pressure, fatigue, and a drop in sex drive.
Getting a good night’s sleep is among the best health tips. Sleep can be aided by a reduction in stress, cutting down on caffeine, and bedsheets for better sleep. If you suffer from chronic insomnia, you may want to visit a doctor to see if your inability to sleep has an underlying medical cause.
Be Aware of Your Mental Health
Another of the best health tips is to be aware of your mental and emotional state. Seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) is a real medical issue that leads to symptoms of depression during the winter. Although the exact cause of SAD is not known, SAD appears to be related to the levels of serotonin (the feel-good hormone) and melatonin (the sleep hormone). It is theorized that as days get shorter and your body receives less sunlight, these hormone levels drop, leading to depression and insomnia.
Among the treatments for SAD are phototherapy. This therapy uses artificial lights to bombard the eyes and skin with low-energy ultraviolet light. This replaces the lack of sunlight received during winter months and appears to relieve the symptoms of SAD in many patients. For patients who do not respond to phototherapy, medication and psychotherapy are sometimes helpful.
Spend Time with Family
This entry into the best health tips is not for everyone. For some people, spending time with their families is stressful. However, for many people, spending time with family is important for their mental health.
Spending time with family relieves stress and helps to build family bonds that may be needed during trying times. Moreover, social activities, such as spending time with friends and family, improve mood and can even reduce the risk of dementia in seniors. Socialization has even been proven to have physical health benefits, including improved immune system response, reduced blood pressure, and lower risk of depression.
Winter provides the perfect opportunities to spend time with family. Holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day are not only social events but can help you maintain a sense of identity as you carry on (or even pass on to children) your family’s traditions and practice gratitude for what you have.
Get Out of the Cold
Sometimes the best health tips are to pack a bag and go somewhere warm. Given how easy travel is these days, you cannot be blamed if you leave the snow behind and head somewhere new looking for new things to do. In the U.S. many states have mild winters and, not coincidentally, sunny beaches. Outside the U.S., countries near the equator or in the southern hemisphere, such as Australia, Southeast Asia, South, and Central America, and the Pacific islands, experience summer while we are in the depths of winter.
Travel provides many health benefits including:
- Improved mood and less likelihood of depression. Most travelers find joy in new experiences.
- Improved brain health. Being exposed to new adventures and new places helps keep the mind active and engaged.
- Reduces stress. Being away from work and responsibilities helps lower cortisol, the stress hormone responsible for high blood pressure and increased blood sugar levels.
- Improved immune response. Exposure to new environments gives the body the ability to respond to new bacteria and viruses, strengthening its immunity.
- Opportunities to exercise. Travel is often associated with physical activity.
As winter sets in, you will need to become mindful of your health to avoid a trip to the doctor. The best health tips include making sure you are ready for the possible ailments that may arise by renewing your health insurance. Prevention is essential, so you should get a flu vaccine and reduce your exposure to the flu virus by being extra vigilant about washing your hands.
Prevention is also the watchword as you visit the dentist for a bi-annual checkup and cleaning. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough rest can also prevent many illnesses, whether physical, mental or emotional, from settling in. Being mindful of your mental state to avoid SAD and depression can also help both your outlook and your physical well-being.
You can ensure that you are in a healthy environment by cleaning and maintaining your heating system. Not only will this reduce the dust and allergens in your home, but it can prevent carbon monoxide or natural gas poisoning.
Finally, you can head somewhere warm to de-stress and refresh yourself. Winter can be a difficult time for many people. The cold and dark weather can bring on aches and pains as well as gloomy thoughts. Travel is a good way to renew your mind and body.