WINTER winds and cold snaps are predictable at this time of year - but some of the ailments they trigger may take us by surprise.
We're primed to dose ourselves up to prevent or cure the inevitable colds or flu, but many of us unwittingly make ourselves vulnerable to other troubling symptoms triggered by a drop in temperature.
Common chilly-ills are painful chilblains, chapped lips and sore ears. Several more serious year-round conditions, such as aching joints, arthritis or Raynaud's, a condition affecting the hands and feet, are exacerbated by the cold.
Research suggests that Britons suffer more illness in the winter than any other country in Europe.
Boots pharmacist, Angela Chalmers points out that under-dressing for the climate could be a factor.
“Our temperatures are changeable and many people seem to get caught out by that. They don't wear enough warm clothing, and then may end up standing around waiting for buses and trains shivering, and that is really bad news,” she says.
“When we shiver, our core temperature drops so that our bodies believes it is an emergency. The blood gets much thicker, which can cause heart attacks and strokes and the immune system is weakened, so people pick up bugs more easily.”
Chalmers says that while people stock up on vitamins and cold and flu remedies in autumn, many ignore other winter risks, which may not be serious but can be just as uncomfortable and debilitating.
“Chilblains, for instance, can be painful and itchy, and cracked skin on heels can be extremely sore. Other people suffer from increased back problems as cold muscles are more easily strained than warm ones.”
Dull, grey days play a part too, as lack of sunlight weakens the immune system and allows viruses to thrive, while crowded, warm places help them to spread.
Chalmers' advice to give yourself the best chance of keeping healthy this winter, is to wrap up when you go out, remembering to keep hands, head and nose warm - and get as much sunlight as you can.
Follow our winter warmer plan so that you don't fall victim to seasonal pain and discomfort...
BEAT THE FREEZE TIPS
Keep your body topped up with warming 'fuel' so it can cope with the cold. Start the day with porridge or cereal with warm milk, and try to eat several small meals throughout the day to help maintain energy heat levels.
Give up smoking. Smoking one cigarette has been shown to decrease the temperature of the extremities by one degree over a 20-minute period, and it generally harms circulation.
Exercise regularly to maintain circulation and help keep the skin flexible. Use a body moisturiser.
Some natural remedies may help in cold weather. Chinese herbal remedy Ginkgo Bilboa and ginger are both known to help improve circulation.
Ginger can be added to meals and you can have hot ginger drinks, or you can add a spoonful of ground ginger to bathing water.
Around one in 10 people get chilblains in cold weather. Those with poor circulation, the elderly and the young, are more susceptible.
Chilblains are swellings, usually on the fingers and toes, caused by small blood vessels beneath the skin narrowing to help keep blood warm.
If they narrow too much, insufficient blood and oxygen reaches the skin. If the skin breaks they make become infected. They can last from seven to 10 days.
“Help to prevent them by improving circulation with exercise,” Chalmers says.
“Loose, woolly socks and slightly oversized shoes are better than tight-fitting footwear.
“Also, avoid warming up cold hands and feet too quickly on a radiator or hot water bottle.”
Cold weather may trigger a cold sore to appear. These are caused herpes simplex virus type one or two, and usually last about a week.
They start as a small red patch - usually accompanied by a tingling sensation - that develops into a blister. This bursts, leaving a raw area that may produce a scab as it heals.
“To reduce the length and severity of attack, apply a cold sore cream as soon as you feel the warning 'tingle' in your skin,” Chalmers says.
“For repeated attacks, your doctor may prescribe tablets containing aciclovir.”
Cold winds can dry out lips, and the loss of moisture may cause scaling and cracking. If severe, lips may become infected.
“A lip balm or intensive dry lip cream can help moisturise them and protect them against the drying effects of the cold,” Chalmers says.
“What people should avoid is constantly using Vaseline, as this only seals the lips and inhibits the natural moisturising process which protects them.”
CENTRAL HEATING HEADACHES
Staying indoors in a centrally heated environment can be dehydrating, and this can help cause headaches.
“People think about drinking a lot in the summer, but wrongly may not think it's important in the winter when they don't feel as thirsty,” Chalmers says.
Ear pain in cold weather is caused by cold air in the ear canal which can, in those predisposed to sensitivity, trigger nerve pain. This can develop further into neuralgia in the face.
“I'm sensitive to this, and always wear ear muffs or a hat to protect my ears,” Chalmers says.
TREATMENT: To relieve pain, use a combination of paracetamol and ibuprofen.
Wearing boots and thick socks in the winter may cause the heels of the feet to lose moisture and crack.
“Visit a chiropodist to make sure your feet are free of hard, dead skin,” Chalmers suggests.
“Also try applying specialised cracked heel creams at night - use socks to keep feet warm and increase penetration.”
Many arthritis sufferers feel their pain is worse on cold, rainy days.
Although there's no medical evidence to support it, many people find taking a glucosamine supplement helps to keep healthy joints supple.
See full story in the Leader