The mention of winter evokes images of sparkling snowflakes and skaters gracefully gliding across the ice. But winter can also be a time of illness and injury, if people fail to take adequate health and safety precautions.


More than 100 viruses can cause colds, the world's most common illness, so few people escape being exposed to at least one of them. In the United States, most people average about three colds every year.

Once it enters the body through the nose or throat, the cold virus begins to multiply, causing any of a number of symptoms: sore throat, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, aches and pains, mild fever, nasal congestion and coughing. A cold usually lasts a week or two.

The best way to treat a cold is to take a mild pain reliever, avoid unnecessary activity, get as much bed rest as possible and drink plenty of fluids, especially fruit juices. Over-the-counter cough and cold remedies may relieve some of the symptoms, but they will not prevent, cure or even shorten the course of the illness.

While there is no vaccine to protect you from catching a cold, there are ways to lessen your chances of coming down with the illness. Keep up your natural resistance through good nutrition and getting enough sleep and exercise. Turn your thermostat down and keep the humidity up in your home. Dry air dries out the mucous membranes in your nose and throat and causes them to crack, creating a place where cold viruses can enter your body. Avoid direct contact with those who have colds and wash your hands frequently.


A contagious respiratory infection, influenza is not a serious health threat for most people. However, for the elderly or those who have a chronic health problem, influenza can result in serious complications, such as pneumonia.

Symptoms of the flu usually develop suddenly, about three days after being exposed to the virus. They include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, and soreness and aching in the back, arms and legs. Although these are similar to those caused by cold viruses, flu symptoms tend to be more severe and to last longer. Abdominal cramps, vomiting or diarrhea symptoms of what is commonly called stomach or intestinal flu do not accompany influenza.

The flu is highly contagious and, if it occurs in your family or community, there is no practical way to avoid exposure to the virus. Bed rest, a mild pain reliever and lots of fluids are the best treatment. (Caution: Unless advised by a physician, a child or teenager with a flu-like illness should not take aspirin. Its use in the presence of a flu infection is linked with an increased risk of Reye syndrome. Instead use another mild pain reliever that does not contain aspirin.) Antibiotics are not effective against flu viruses.

Flu vaccines, while not always effective in preventing the illness, do reduce the severity of the symptoms and protect against complications that could develop. The shots are strongly recommended for persons 65 years of age and older and those who suffer from such chronic health problems as heart disease, respiratory problems, renal disease, diabetes, anemia or any disease that weakens the body's immune system. Infants, children and young people up to 18 years of age who are receiving long-term treatment with aspirin should also get a flu shot. Persons allergic to eggs or who have a high fever, however, should avoid or postpone getting a flu shot.

Because influenza vaccine is only effective for one year and viruses vary from year to year, it is necessary to get a flu shot every year. In Illinois, the flu season usually begins in November and lasts until around the middle of April. If you plan to get a flu shot do so early since it takes about two weeks to develop full immunity. However, even a shot in January may protect against a late winter outbreak.


Hypothermia a drop in body temperature to 95 degrees or less can be fatal if not detected promptly and treated properly. In the United States, about 700 deaths occur each year from hypothermia.

While hypothermia can happen to anyone, the elderly run the highest risk because their bodies often do not adjust to changes in temperature quickly and they may be unaware that they are gradually getting colder. The condition usually develops over a period of time, anywhere from a few days to several weeks, and even mildly cool indoor temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees can trigger it. If you have elderly relatives or friends who live alone, encourage them to set their thermostats above 65 degrees to avoid hypothermia.

When the body temperature drops, the blood vessels near the surface of the body narrow to reduce heat loss. Muscles begin to tighten to make heat. If the body temperature continues to drop, the person will begin to shiver. The shivering continues until the temperature drops to about 90 degrees. Temperatures below 90 degrees create a life-threatening situation.

Signs of hypothermia include forgetfulness, drowsiness, slurred speech, change in appearance (e.g., puffy face), weak pulse, slow heartbeat, and very slow and shallow breathing. If the body temperature drops to or below 86 degrees, a person may slip into a coma or have a death-like appearance.

If you notice these symptoms in a person, take his or her temperature. If it is 95 degrees or below, call a doctor or ambulance or take the victim directly to a hospital. To prevent further heat loss, wrap the patient in a warm blanket. A hot water bottle or electric heating pad (set on low) can by applied to the person's stomach. If the victim is alert, give small quantities of warm food or drink.

There are several things you should not do to a hypothermia victim. Do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not give a hot shower or bath, since it could cause shock. Generally, do not try to treat hypothermia at home. The condition should be treated in a hospital.


The parts of the body most affected by frostbite are exposed areas of the face (cheeks, nose, chin, forehead), the ears, wrists, hands and feet. Frostbitten skin is whitish and stiff and feels numb rather than painful. When spending time outdoors during cold weather, be alert for signs of frostbite and, if you notice any, take immediate action.

To treat frostbite, warm the affected part of the body gradually. Wrap the area in blankets, sweaters, coats, etc. If no warm wrappings are available, place frostbitten hands under the armpits or use your body to cover the affected area. Seek medical attention immediately.

Do not rub frostbitten areas; the friction can damage the tissue. Do not apply snow to frostbitten areas. Because its temperature is below freezing, snow will aggravate the condition.

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Illinois Department of Public Health
535 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, Illinois 62761
Phone 217-782-4977
Fax 217-782-3987
TTY 800-547-0466
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