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Cold and damp weather

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Cold and damp weather

From ancient times up to the dawn of modern medicine, people in the Western world believed in an ancient Greek medical system called the Humours. It was thought that everyone's body was made up of a mix of different liquids, and illness was caused by an imbalance between these liquids, or humours.

In Shakespeare's day, these humours were called, blood, bile, phlegm and choler. It was believed that an excess of one particular humour partly defined your character, in the same way that some people believe star signs do. This is why we use words like bilious, phlegmatic, sanguine and melancholic to describe character types.

The ancient Greeks may not have been totally off the mark, as cold and damp weather does seem to affect some people much worse than others. These people were once known as the phlegmatic type. These days, modern medicine has confirmed that cold, damp weather can aggravate the symptoms of quite a number of illnesses and complaints.

How does cold, damp weather affect asthma?

Asthma is a lung complaint that narrows the airways, making breathing difficult. An asthma attack is generally triggered by the body responding to an allergy, but cold, damp air can make breathing difficult for those with asthma. During the winter months, anyone diagnosed with asthma should take special care to wrap up well and take their prescribed medicine or inhaler regularly. For some people, the symptoms of asthma are sporadic and mild, but for others an attack can be life threatening in its severity.

Winter can expose people with asthma to a number of potential triggers. Cold and damp weather may instigate an attack, or at best make breathing more difficult than in warmer months. There is a greater likelihood of catching a cold during winter, and this can make breathing hard for those with asthma. Cold weather drives us indoors, and exposure to indoor triggers of asthma increase the chance of suffering an attack. Cockroaches, dust mites, cigarette smoke and smoke from a wood or turf fire can all cause an asthma attack. The drying effect of central heating and efficient insulation may also contribute to triggering an asthma attack.

If you suffer from attacks of asthma, try to keep a record of your behaviour. You may be able to isolate an allergic reaction that causes your asthma. If, however, your asthma is aggravated by cold weather, you may simply have to accept that this is the case and take sensible steps to manage your asthma as well as you can. If the cold weather is a definite trigger to asthma attacks, taking two puffs of your 'reliever' inhaler (the blue one containing a bronchodilator) may be helpful in preventing an attack. Those with asthma are advised to consult their GP before the onset of cold weather to discuss if their asthma treatment should be changed to account for the wintry weather.

How does cold, damp weather affect bronchitis?

Bronchitis is an infection of the bronchi, the passageways below the oesophagus that conduct air from the mouth and nose to the lungs. It is usually caused by a viral infection, and the virus responsible for the common cold can sometimes lead to bronchitis in people whose lung resistance levels are low, such as smokers or asthmatics. In winter months, cold, damp weather can aggravate bronchitis, and may even make it difficult to breathe. If you contract bronchitis and find it difficult to breathe, or if your infection continues for more than a week you should definitely consult your GP.

How does cold, damp weather affect osteoarthritis, rheumatism and fibromyalgia?

Cold, damp weather is well known for aggravating aching bones. Rheumatoid and arthritic conditions may react badly to winter; what may be merely a stiff joint or a dull ache in summer months can become a shooting pain in cold, damp weather.

Osteoarthritis occurs as a result of 'wear and tear' on joints which causes a degeneration of cartilage at a joint, with the growth of painful bone 'spurs' in the surrounding tissue. It can occur at any body joint, but is most commonly found in fingers and hands, hips and the spine. Like all arthritic conditions, it may react to changes in the weather, and just as good weather can ease pain levels, so the onset of wintry weather can cause an increase in discomfort.

Fibromyalgia is a rheumatic syndrome that causes pain in fibrous tissues, muscles, tendons, and other connective tissues. It usually results in fatigue, coupled with widespread pain throughout the affected muscles. Pain levels can vary from quite mild to severe, and the pain itself is often described as a stiff, deep, aching sensation that radiates around the affected tender points. The tender points where fibromyalgia is most commonly found are the fibrous tissues surrounding:

  • The neck.
  • The shoulders.
  • The upper chest.
  • The rib cage.
  • The lumbar region and the lower back.
  • The thighs.
  • The knees.
  • The arms, especially at the elbows.

Those with fibromyalgia have noted that the condition often improves throughout the day, with pain increasing again towards night time. Pain often increases if the affected muscles are exercised. As with other rheumatic disorders, cold, damp weather may make the pain of fibromyalgia worse.

If you have an arthritic or rheumatoid condition, there is little you can do to avoid the aggravation that comes with bad weather, except to avoid the weather. Wrap up affected areas very well if you must brave the elements. Pay particular attention to your extremities — wear warm socks and gloves. A hat or cap will prevent heat loss through the head. One good idea, if it is possible, is to take a holiday during the winter months to somewhere warm. Some arthritic and rheumatoid conditions respond well to warm dry weather, and a break during winter may help the affected areas respond better when you return to Ireland’s murky winter.

How does cold, damp weather affect depression?

It is no secret that incidence of depression increases during the dark, winter months. There is a scientific reason for this, and it is known as SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. The lack of daylight during winter seems to trigger SAD, which causes symptoms including depression, lack of appetite, low libido, fatigue, anxiety and withdrawal from society. Theories as to what causes SAD abound, but it is generally accepted that some neurotransmitters (the chemicals that carry messages around the brain) are affected during winter, especially serotonin, which drops to its lowest levels during the winter months.

There are many other reasons why people may find themselves depressed during winter. The 'November Blues' are often caused by a combination of dark days, the onset of cold, damp weather, and the beginning of winter illness outbreaks. 'Christmas Blues' are understandably the result of the stresses and strains that the festive season can induce.

People with impaired mobility often refer to "Cabin Fever", which occurs when they are unable to leave the house due to inclement weather. This feeling of being trapped at home by wintry conditions, perhaps with increased pain due to cold, damp weather, can cause depression.

If you feel depressed, whether it is winter or summer, it is important to talk to someone about it. Without someone to listen, it can be easy to lose perspective on your problems. While confiding in family members or friends can be very helpful, those with persistent low mood should consider counselling or attending a therapist. Your GP will be able to refer you, and may also suggest a course of medication that will help to ease any symptoms of despair.

If you feel desperate or suicidal, speak to the Samaritans on Callsave 1850 609090, or attend your local GP or Accident and Emergency Department. There are people out there who can help, but you must reach out to them.

How does cold, damp weather affect pneumonitis?

Pneumonitis is an inflammation of the lungs caused by breathing in certain organic substances, such as dust, fungus, or mould. If you repeatedly breathe in these substances, known as antigens, the immune system will respond by forming antibodies to destroy the antigens. The lungs can become severely inflamed by the interaction of antigens and antibodies in a hypersensitive reaction called pneumonitis.

There are a number of different types of hypersensitive pneumonitis, as many different substances can cause the allergic reaction in the lungs of different people. Most of these conditions become worse in cold, damp weather, making it more difficult to breathe, and more difficult for the lungs to expel carbon dioxide.

If the allergic substance can be identified, then it should be avoided if at all possible. Otherwise, covering the mouth while out in cold, damp weather, with either a mask or even just a scarf, may help to minimise the aggravation of the condition.

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