Seasonal cold weather heralds the onset of a host of ailments and can also make some conditions worse. Experts give their advice so you can win the winter health war
Winter is traditionally a time when we succumb to colds, coughs and flu but we can also fall victim to other conditions or see existing health problems worsen as the temperature drops.
"Now the clocks have gone back, we know winter is well on its way and with it comes shorter, darker days and a sharp drop in temperature and light," says Kate Butler, a nutritionist at Holland & Barrett.
"Just like our surroundings, the human body reacts to this change in conditions, causing the predictable health problems like colds and sore throats, but many people don't realise that others such as acne can be worsened by the cold weather.
"While we're probably prepared to do battle with coughs and sneezes, we may overlook ways to help ourselves avoid an allergy, or to help our skin and bones weather the winter."
Experts give their advice on coping with seven common conditions that can strike at this time of the year:
The lack of natural sunlight following this year's summer washout could lead to an increase in bone-related problems. "When people aren't getting out in the sun, there's going to be an increase in the amount of vitamin D deficiency-related illnesses," says Dr Nicola Balch, an associate specialist in child health.
People make 90% of their vitamin D naturally from sunlight exposure on their skin. Without sunlight, the shortfall must be made up with a healthy diet and, if necessary, with supplements.
Balch predicts more children might suffer from rickets, a softening or weakening of the bones caused by a lack of vitamin D, and those with weaker bones may be more likely to suffer fractures.
Holland & Barrett's Vitamin D3 Tablets (10mg), €4.39 for 100 tablets.
For children: Disney Multivitamin Gummies, a multivitamin and mineral food supplement, contain 2.5mcg of vitamin D, priced €8.99for 60 chewable tablets. Both available from www.hollandandbarrett.ie
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of winter depression which affects around adults every winter between September and April.
This year, due to the extended poor weather, GPs have noticed sufferers reporting symptoms, which can include anxiety, loss of libido and motivation, and sleep problems, earlier than usual.
The condition is thought to be caused primarily by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.
"Due to the unseasonably poor weather in the summer, we have seen an increase in those people who already have a vulnerability to depression reporting problems, and there's been a rise in patients reporting fatigue and low mood," says Dr David Edwards
Lumie products mimic sunlight to help combat the effects of SAD. Lumie Bodyclock Go Wake-Up Lamp, From €74, available at Argos and Boots.
BANISH THE BLEMISHES
For those with acne and other common skin conditions, such as eczema, rosacea and psoriasis, the onset of winter can be particularly unwelcome
Moving between different temperatures - the hot, dry air of air conditioned or centrally heated rooms contrasting with the biting winds of the cold outside - can aggravate skin.
"Many patients find that their acne improves during the summer when their skin has been exposed to sunlight," says Dr Aamer Khan, clinical director of Harley Street Skin Clinic.
"The theory behind it is that ultraviolet (UV) radiation in the sunlight kills the bacteria beneath the skin that causes acne and therefore helps to reduce spot inflammation."
"Unfortunately, sunlight also contains ultraviolet (UVA, UVB) light which can damage skin and even cause skin cancer.
"Scientists have found that visible blue light is effective in killing the bacteria which causes acne. Blue light has been used by leading dermatologists for many years to treat acne," he says.
:: A Lustre Pure Light, designed for mild to moderate acne, claims to deliver acne-destroying light but doesn't contain skin-damaging UVA and UVB rays. It is a portable home-use device available from specialist skin care clinics following a consultation. It costs from €375. For more information, visit www.lustrepurelight.com Clinics throughout Ireland.
Raynaud's affects around one in 20 people and occurs when the extremities of the body, usually the fingers and toes, change colour and may become painful on exposure to cold.
Although it can be caused by stress, the condition is often linked to temperature. The small blood vessels of the fingers become narrow and sometimes other extremities such as the toes, ears and nose are affected.
In many cases it may be possible to control the symptoms using self-care techniques such as avoiding the cold, wearing gloves and using relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Sufferers with severe symptoms may need medication.
"Keep your hands and feet warm with warm gloves, socks and shoes, essential when you are out in cool weather," says Dr Sarah Jarvis, a GP and blogger on www.patient.co.uk.
"Also, although your hands and feet are the most important, symptoms are less likely to occur if you keep your entire body warm as well, so wear layers of clothing and hats and scarves."
:: Best4feet Silver Fibre socks,€22.70 (P&P included). For more information: www.irishraynauds.com
Every year the highly contagious 'winter vomiting bug' - known as Norovirus - affects between 600,000 to a million people.
The sudden onset of gastroenteritis normally occurs 12-48 hours after being infected, and can last up to 60 hours.
While there's no instant cure for the virus and sufferers are advised to let it run its course, it's essential to keep fluid levels topped up to minimise the danger of dehydration, in particular with the young and elderly who are at greater risk.
Family GP Dr Roger Henderson says: "It's dehydration rather than the virus itself which is particularly dangerous, as the loss of water and essential minerals prevents the body from functioning normally and can cause potentially serious or even fatal complications."
He advises using oral rehydration therapies, but says people should always consult a doctor about persistent symptoms, particularly in the elderly and children aged under two.
Snuffles, sneezes, itchy eyes and wheezing are characteristic of the summer hayfever season, but the same symptoms can strike again due to an increase of allergens in winter, warns Susanne Haar, homeopathic pharmacist at Nelsons
"As the weather gets colder, more and more people dry their clothes over radiators or indoors," she says.
"This creates more moisture in the air and the ideal conditions (hot and humid) for dust mites to thrive and populate.
"The fecal matter (dust) they produce is irritating to sufferers of dust allergies, causing symptoms such as sneezing, runny noses, itchy eyes and wheezing.
"Moisture in the air can also lead to increased mould which can irritate breathing conditions such as asthma."
Dust mites are also a common cause of skin conditions such as eczema, she points out. Additionally, because pets are indoors more, there can be a build-up of pet hair on furniture, clothes and carpets, which affects those with a fur allergy.
:: Nelsons Pollenna, €5.39, is a non-drowsy homeopathic remedy which may provide relief for symptoms associated with allergies. It is available from Boots, Holland & Barrett, and www.evergreen.ie.
As Christmas looms with the necessity for preparations and pressure on budgets (as well as coping with everyday routines), stress levels can begin to ratchet up.
"Stress is very common and affects both men and women, of all ages, in different ways," says stress expert and Oxfordshire GP Dr David Edwards.
"Stress can have many different triggers for each individual, from money worries to family problems, as well as work or home pressures, all which can cause considerable strain on the body.
"Exercise and maintaining a healthy diet are crucial to maintaining a relaxed mind and body," says Edwards.
He recommends that patients take Rhodiola rosea as a short-term option when suffering stressful periods. "Taking 200mg twice a day could help to control the release of stress hormones while improving energy and concentration levels, which can reduce symptoms of stress," he says.
:: Vitano, which contains 200mg of Rhodiola rosea root extract. Available from Boots, pharmacies and health food stores. For more information, visit www.vitano.co.uk.