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Sick of the cold

The temperature drops, the wind picks up, and complaints of sniffling and sneezing shoot up. Few people, however, know that more than germs, it’s allergies that cause blocked noses and itchy throats in the winter as the smog plays havoc with the already constricted blood vessels and airways, aggravating asthma, sinuses and itchy throats.

health and fitness Updated: Jan 10, 2011 15:35 IST
Sanchita Sharma

The temperature drops, the wind picks up, and complaints of sniffling and sneezing shoot up. Few people, however, know that more than germs, it’s allergies that cause blocked noses and itchy throats in the winter as the smog plays havoc with the already constricted blood vessels and airways, aggravating asthma, sinuses and itchy throats.

Since the symptoms resemble the common cold, undiagnosed allergies are often dismissed as yet another upper respiratory infection, which can range from colds to cough and sinus infections. “If the symptoms of a cold — blocked or runny nose — persist for more than a week, it’s likely to be an allergy triggered by pollutants or smog. A common cold rarely lasts for more than five days, though this year people are complaining of symptoms persisting for a week,” said Dr Sushum Sharma, senior internist and head of preventive medicine at Max Healthcare.

The American academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends that babies who suffer more than six upper-respiratory infections a year, and children and adults with more than three or four, should be evaluated for allergies.

Since avoiding allergens is not always possible, anti-histamine, inhaled corticosteroids and simple saline solutions (a teaspoon salt in a glass of water) to unblock the nose can help alleviate symptoms. Medicines work best if you have them just as symptoms start to appear.

Viral distress
Viral gastroenteritis that triggers an acute attack of vomiting is another infection that is ruling the winter air across northern and western India. “The current bouts of gastric distress are caused by a virus and typically starts with severe vomiting that lasts for 24-36 hours, which may be accompanied with loose stools and abdominal pain,” said Dr Sharma.

While the virus causing the illness in India has not been identified, Noroviruses is the dominant virus globally, reported the British medical journal’s BMC Public Health.

“Viral diseases increase in winter because the cold brings down people’s natural immunity and makes them more susceptible to infection,” says Dr Sharma, who has been getting patients with these symptoms. Since the virus is transmitted through the air from the vomit of an infected person, infection can take place without direct contact.

Like all infections caused by viruses, the puking disorder runs its course and goes away on its own. All you need to do is increase your fluid intake to ensure there is no dehydration. Since it is a viral infection, there is no need for antibiotics, which are effective only against bacteria.

A person remains infectious for two days after the symptoms go away, so ensure separate linen and towels are used so they don’t infect others. Use hot water to clean contaminated linen as the virus can live on furnishings and rugs for many days.

Cold attack
Falling temperatures also up chances of heart attacks and strokes in people with high blood pressure and heart disease, with people over 65 years at greatest risk. Most hospitals report cases going up by 10-20 per cent during peak winter as compared to summer months, with the north facing the brunt.

“In the cold, blood vessels constrict and the blood viscosity – thickness, which causes increased clot formation in the arteries -- goes up, triggering symptoms of chest pain and attacks in people with marginal heart disease,” says Dr Purshotam Lal, Chairman, Metro Group of Hospitals in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

With every one degree centigrade drop in temperature, the upper blood pressure (systolic) increases by 1.3mm of mercury and the lower blood pressure (diastolic) increases by 0.6mm of mercury. “This variation is more pronounced in people over 65 years and in those with high blood pressure, which puts them at greatest risk,” says Lal.

The cold also activates the body’s “sympathetic” response responsible for the fight or fright syndrome, leading to an increases in the secretion of hormones called adrenaline and nor-adrenaline. These hormones push up blood pressure, increase the heart rate and the body’s oxygen demand, all of which put people with heart disease at risk of an attack.

Staying bundled up as far as possible is a start. “Protecting yourself from infection and sudden dip in temperature is a basic precaution, especially if you have heart disease,” says Dr Lal.