Winter has arrived in several parts of the country. Along with the foggy mornings and chilly evenings, winter marks the beginning of a number of festivals. However, for some people, the season also brings with it a lot of health problems, notably respiratory illnesses. In addition to the colder environment which triggers health issues, disease transmission can also accelerate during winter also due to poor ventilation in crowded places.
People with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) witness exacerbation of their conditions as the cold temperatures may make it difficult to breathe comfortably.
Which respiratory diseases are more prevalent during winters?
Though respiratory diseases can happen at any time during the year, some of them are more prevalent during winters.
- Common cold: This is the most contagious disease seen during winters and can be caused by more than two hundred different types of viruses.
- Influenza: Commonly known as flu, influenza is a viral disease which looks exactly like a common cold but is more severe. A person with flu would also complain of body ache, congestion, fatigue and chest pain.
- Bronchitis: Bronchitis manifests in the form of swelling and irritation in the airway and lungs. It is often preceded by a common cold or flu. The most common symptom of bronchitis is a persistent cough.
- Pneumonia: Pneumonia is most commonly seen during winters and causes the small air sacs of the lungs (alveoli) to get filled up with fluid.
- Whooping cough: Whooping cough (also called pertussis) is mostly seen in young children and is highly contagious in nature. It presents as uncontrollable violent coughing.
- Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): RSV is mostly seen in infants and children and can result in chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. It presents with severe pain in the chest and often seen during peak winters.
- Sinusitis: Sinusitis is an upper respiratory tract infection which can present with congestion, headache and cough. Sinusitis is usually seen in closed spaces with poor ventilation.
How the body normally responds to a virus
It is an established fact that the viruses and bacteria responsible for the common cold, flu and other respiratory diseases, enter the human body through the nose. Generally, when these microbes enter the nose, they are unable to pass through it as the nasal lining has mucus and cilia (hair-like structures in the nose), which inhibit these microbes from entering the respiratory tract. These viruses get stuck in the mucus and due to the continuous movement of cilia, later reach the stomach. The stomach acids neutralize the virus, thus preventing the disease and infection.
Does winter aid the spread of respiratory diseases?
According to a study published in the journal Acta Otolaryngologica, when cold air enters the nasal passage, it slows down the production of the mucus. When this microorganism passes through the nasal passage, the immune system gets activated and fights off the invader. But, the study further depicted that cold air also decreases this immune action, thus allowing the microorganism to spread infection.
According to research conducted by Harvard, since people spend more time indoors during the winter season where ventilation is poor, it is easy for a disease to spread amongst people living in the same house as they all are breathing the same air as someone who has an infection. Research has also shown that due to extremely low humidity levels during winters, microorganisms such as E. coli, poliovirus and influenza virus sustain for a longer time.
Researchers have conducted various experiments on guinea pigs to understand the ability of the influenza virus to spread in different temperatures and humidity levels. It was noted that when the temperature was 43° Fahrenheit and the humidity was low, the virus survived for more than 23 hours. However, when at higher humidity levels and temperature above 90° Fahrenheit, the virus diminished after an hour.
What can be done to protect the lungs during winters?
The best and easiest way for people to protect themselves from all diseases during winters is by washing their hands with soap and water frequently, avoiding touching their eyes, nose, or mouth and staying away from people who are already ill.
There are some other precautions that can help a person deal with winter ailments:
- During winter, our body gets tired easily as it is already working hard to keep the body temperature normal. Layering the body with warm clothes would help the body regulate the temperature much easier.
- To prevent sinusitis during winters, one must drink lots warm of water, keep their surroundings clean to avoid dust and inhale steam to open up the blocked respiratory tract and sinuses.
- People must get flu shots (vaccine for influenza) every year to reduce the risk of getting the flu.
- Consumption of multivitamins would help in boosting immunity during winters.
- Vitamin C rich foods such as lemon, orange, Indian gooseberry and guava, would help in preventing various respiratory illnesses.
- People with pre-existing respiratory diseases must perform breathing exercises on a regular basis to maintain their lung function.
- If the air quality is bad around your place, avoid morning jogs as the toxic pollutants in the air are at a peak during that time.
- Consume hot beverages such as tea, coffee or soups to help maintain the body temperature.
- Use a humidifier at home to prevent the drying of the airway.
If a person experiences difficulty in breathing, has chest pain, weakness, stomach ache, dizziness, persistent cough with fever, they must contact a doctor as soon as possible.
By taking all the necessary measures, it is easy to prevent the occurrence of respiratory illnesses during winters. Consuming a balanced diet, wearing warm clothes, getting flu shots and spending at least an hour under the sun would help you keep respiratory diseases at bay during winter.
For any queries related to respiratory health, speak to a pulmonologist.