Many of us grew up hearing the advice, “Put on a hat — you lose most of your heat through your head” from a well-meaning mother. But is it true? Several winter health warnings that proliferate today started generations ago and have snowballed over the decades. Before you follow advice you heard from mom or picked up on the internet, learn the truth behind some popular – and pervasive – winter health guidance.
Myth: You don’t need to wear sunscreen in winter. You might smear on a layer of sun protection before heading out to the pool, but do you do the same thing on your way to the ski lift? The sun’s ultraviolet rays can burn all year round, and they’re especially intense at high altitudes. In fact, UV radiation increases by 4 to 5 percent for every 1,000 feet you travel above sea level. Snow reflects sun, further strengthening those rays. About 30 minutes before you pack up your skis and snowboard, apply a layer of SPF 30 or higher sunscreen to all exposed areas. Don’t forget your lips. They can burn, too. Wear a lip balm with an SPF 15 or higher. And don’t forget wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Myth: Don’t get chilled; you’ll catch a cold! This one does have a nugget of truth to it. To catch a cold, you need to be exposed to one of the viruses that cause colds. Yet being chilled might increase your susceptibility to these viruses. Researchers say the stress of cold on your body could alter your immune response, leaving you more vulnerable to infection. And the longer you’re exposed to cold, the greater your likelihood of getting sick.
Myth: You don’t have to worry about allergies until spring. Just because the flowers are buried under a layer of snow, doesn’t mean you get a reprieve from allergy symptoms. Allergies are just as likely to make you sneeze in winter as they do in spring, although the triggers are different. Mold, dust, and animal dander become problems as cold temperatures lead to more time spent indoors. If you do have winter allergies, you might not realize it. Symptoms like a stuffed, runny nose and cough can make colds and allergies hard to distinguish. The difference is in the duration. While a cold will clear up after a couple of days, allergies hang around for weeks or months.
Myth: Alcohol warms you up. A hot toddy or spiked cider can make you feel toasty on a cold day, but the effect is an illusion. Alcohol pulls warm blood away from your vital organs and diverts it to your skin’s surface, so you actually lose heat more quickly. Plus, a few drinks can distort your judgment, leading you to make potentially life-threatening decisions while out in the cold.
Myth: Stay indoors to prevent your skin from drying out. You’ll undoubtedly be warmer indoors, but the indoor air won’t do your skin any favors. The combination of heat and lack of humidity sucks moisture from skin, leaving it dry, itchy, and flaky. A better way to preserve supple skin is to apply an oil-based moisturizer every morning, as soon as you get out of the bath or shower. Turning on a humidifier in your home can also help prevent dryness.
Myth: Take vitamin C to prevent colds. Rather than suffer through a stuffed head and runny nose, many of us are willing to try any remedy to prevent colds. Vitamin C has been touted for cold prevention since the 1930s, but does it work? A review of studies found popping vitamin C tablets daily doesn’t prevent colds, although it could make symptoms milder. Supplements might be more helpful for people who are exposed to extreme physical stress – such as marathon runners and skiers. Research finds vitamin C cut their risk of getting a cold in half.
Myth: You lose most of your heat through your head. This myth likely originated in military experiments conducted back in the 1950s, when researchers dressed subjects in Arctic survival suits and sent them out into frigid temperatures. The participants did lose most of their heat from their heads, but only because their heads were the only part of their bodies exposed to the cold. Today, experts say the reason your head feels colder than your other body parts is because it’s more sensitive to temperature changes. You don’t lose heat any faster from your top than you do from your arms or legs. Still, it’s a good idea to cover all exposed areas – including your head — to prevent your skin from frostbite.
February 15, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN