15 Ways to Protect Yourself From Winter's Biggest Health Threats

Whether you love snow and frosty weather or you'd be happy if you never saw the white stuff again, winter can be a challenging season when it comes to your health. From colds and flu to the strains and sprains that can happen in an instant as you shovel the driveway, dig out the car, or walk on icy sidewalks, winter requires you to take some extra precautions to stay safe and healthy.

Here's a guide to coping with a variety of cold weather maladies.

Colds and Flu

It’s not your imagination that people get sick more often in the winter. In cold weather, you're indoors and in closer physical contact with others, so cold and flu viruses are easily passed back and forth. And while colds tend to be a short-lived nuisance and the vast majority of people recover from influenza (flu), influenza kills tens of thousands of people in the US annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The elderly and the very young are the most at risk.

  • Wash your hands. "Hand washing is the biggest thing you can do to stay healthy this winter," says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. But timing the hand washing is important, he says. "The whole point is to wash your hands before you eat or touch your face. You can have germs on your hands and if you touch your face, you can get sick. Only touch your mouth, nose, or face when you have just washed your hands." Even the mucous membranes of your eyes can be a port of entry for germs, he says. Hands should be washed for 15 seconds; Horovitz does not recommend antibacterial soap.

    Since viruses can live on the surface of an inanimate object for up to 24 hours, be especially careful to wash your hands after you have been out running errands or riding a train or bus. And if you can't wash your hands, at least use a hand sanitizer.
  • Get a flu shot. "It's 70 percent effective at preventing the flu, and even if you do get the flu in spite of a flu shot, the symptoms are less severe and the duration of the illness is shorter," says Joel Blass, MD, Medical Director at Cassena Care on Long Island, New York. "If you get the flu after a flu shot, it may last for several days rather than the 10 to 14 days it would typically last."
  • Use humidifiers to combat the dry air. "A humidifier keeps the mucous membranes moist so they are not cracked and inviting germs to come in," Horovitz says.
  • Eat right. This is especially important in the winter, says Christopher Hobbs, PhD, LAc, AHG (American Herbalists Guild), and director at vitamin brand Rainbow Light. "You want to strengthen your immune system by eating good foods," he says. "Avoid eating too many refined and packaged foods and consider taking a multivitamin."

Sprains and Strains

If you are walking on an icy surface, you are certainly at risk of taking a tumble. But there are things you can do to lessen the chance of that happening.

If you are in good physical shape, and have strong legs and a strong core (generally speaking, the muscles that support your spine), your balance will be much better than if you are in poor physical shape, says John Rowley, a certified personal trainer based in Raleigh, NC. “If you are unstable, you are more likely to hurt yourself," he says.

  • Practice balance. By improving your balance, you may be able to reduce the risk of a fall. If you are unable to stand on one foot, for instance, practice until you can, Horovitz says.
  • Walk with care. "When you walk on a slippery surface, try to do the 'penguin walk,' in which you keep your body weight over your front foot," says Richard Ferriggi, DPT, CSCS, partner and clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in Commack, NY. 
  • Stay alert. Be aware of your environment as you walk around in the winter, Rowley says. "Many people walk around daydreaming, talking on their phones, and not paying any attention to where they are walking."
  • Exercise caution. When you go out to shovel snow, keep in mind that you’re using muscles you may not usually use. To stay safe, shovel for two minutes, but then stand up straight and take a short break. And since you are not accustomed to breathing in cold air, wrap a scarf over your mouth so that you are breathing in warm air.
  • Shovel in the right position. As you shovel, bend your knees so that the full impact of the shoveling will not be on your back, Ferriggi says. "Take small amounts of snow onto the shovel, and as you throw the snow, turn your feet into the throw, opening up your hips as you toss the snow," he advises. "And never rush. Injuries happen when you rush."

Dry, Chapped Skin and Dry Eyes

Skin tends to dry out much more quickly in the winter, notes Blass, but you can prevent dry, chapped skin.

  • Moisturize often. "Apply lotion right after your bath or shower," Blass advises. "Any petroleum jelly is a perfectly good moisturizer and if you plan on going this route, you should apply it after showering or washing your hands. Any commercial brand moisturizers are fine."
  • Get a cream. If you are plagued with eczema in the winter, petroleum jelly or an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can be helpful.

Eye Problems

The cold climate and indoor heat can have an adverse effect on your eyes, leaving them dry and uncomfortable. "The climate inside and outside can affect your eyes during the winter," says Melissa Barnett, OD, FAAO, of the California Optometric Association and Principal Optometrist at the University of California Davis Medical Center. "Inside, heaters dry out the air and outside, cool dry air contributes to eye dryness."

  • Humidify. Running a humidifier is helpful at alleviating the irritation caused by dry eyes, Barnett says. "They can be used in bedrooms during sleep or even in the workplace as dry eyes often occur as a result of reduced blinking while working via computer screen," she explains.
  • Try eye drops and sunglasses. Eye drops are another option, and wearing wraparound sunglasses whenever you are outside can help prevent dry eye irritation and preserve overall eye health, Barnett says.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

The change of seasons, especially when fall turns into winter, is typically the time of year Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) hits. A type of depression that causes you to feel hopeless or worthless, suffer from sleep problems, and display a lack of interest in activities, SAD also can sap your energy and is most likely to strike in the cold winter months, when there is less natural sunlight.

  • Let there be light. Light therapy, also called phototherapy or bright light therapy, can be an effective treatment for SAD. During light therapy, patients sit near a light therapy box, which emits a bright light meant to simulate natural outdoor light.
  • Talk it out. Talk therapy as well as antidepressant medications are often used, sometimes in combination with light therapy

Alan Manevitz, MD. reviewed this article.


Alan Manevitz, MD, reviewed the article. 

John Rowley, certified personal trainer. Phone interview October 9, 2014. 

Len Horovitz, MD. Phone interview, October 9, 2014. 

Richard Ferriggi, DPT, CSCS. Phone interview, October 9, 2014. 

Christopher Hobbs, PhD, LAc, AHG. Phone interview October 9, 2014. 

Joel Blass, MD. Phone interview, October 10, 2014. 

Melissa Barnett, OD, FAAO. Phone interview October 10, 2014. 

"Estimating Seasonal Influenza-Associated Deaths in the United States: CDC Study Confirms Variability of Flu." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last reviewed August 15, 2014.  

"Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)." Mayo Clinic. Page updated September 12, 2014. 

"Seasonal Affective Disorder." Medline Plus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Page last updated October 27, 2014. 

"Light Therapy: Definition." Mayo Clinic. Page updated March 20, 2013.