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‘Wrap up warm… it’s cold outside!’

12:00am | & Health

How often have we heard that phrase during Britain’s cold and sometimes freezing winter weather? It sounds like good common sense, and it is, but it’s worth a reminder of why it’s so important to keep warm, not just outdoors but indoors too.

Cold weather can do much more than just make you shiver; it brings significant health risks, particularly in later life or if you have an underlying health condition such as heart or breathing problems. As well as making you more vulnerable to common infections like coughs and colds, prolonged exposure to the cold can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

And remember, if you’re eligible for a free flu jab you should make sure you have it every year. Although it might make you feel a little achy for a couple of days as your body responds to the vaccine, that’s far better than catching flu, which can be fatal. Anyone over 65 or with certain underlying health issues is eligible for a free flu jab on the NHS – if you haven’t had yours it’s not too late – contact your GP.

But aside from medicines, there’s a lot you can do yourself to make sure you keep warm and well through the winter, beginning with what you wear. Prevention is always better than cure, and dressing for warmth is a great way to prevent winter ailments.

It’s all too easy for your body’s core temperature to drop without you really noticing, particularly if mobility problems mean you’re not as active as you used to be. Most people know that exposure to extreme cold, even for a short period, can lead to hypothermia, but so can prolonged exposure to an environment that is only moderately cold.

The key to dressing for warmth is layers. Lots of thin layers of clothing are far better than one or two bulky ones. This is because warm air is trapped between the layers of clothing, acting as insulation. More layers keep the warmth in and the cold out.

Clothes made from wool or fleecy synthetic fibres such as polyester are a better choice for retaining heat than cotton. A ‘base layer’ of thermal underwear or thick warm tights is a good place to start, and there’s no reason why men shouldn’t wear tights under their trousers – it’s one of the best kept secrets of men who work outdoors in all weathers!

It’s also important to keep your extremities – your hands and feet – warm, to ensure good circulation. Warm slippers and good thick socks help, and again, two pairs of socks layered is better than one. A pair of gloves will keep your hands warm, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t wear them indoors if it makes you feel better.

If you can, try and get up and move around at regular intervals to get the blood pumping around your body and keep you warm, just like hot water flowing round a central heating system. If mobility problems restrict your activity, it’s even more important to keep warm. A shawl or blanket around your shoulders will provide a lot of warmth. Raising your feet up off the floor will also help keep them warm, as the air is colder at ground level.

And don’t forget a hat! A lot of heat escapes through your scalp and there’s no reason you can’t wear a hat indoors. The Victorians did it all the time and, in the days before central heating, they knew a thing or two about how to keep warm!

Staying warm through the night is just as important as in the daytime. Make sure your bed has enough bedclothes on and use a hot water bottle or electric blanket, but not both together as water and electricity don’t mix. If you use an electric blanket you should have it checked at least every three years, and also check whether it’s the type that can be left on all night or should only be used to warm the bed before you get in. One thing to note; if you suffer at all from incontinence, speak to your doctor before using an electric blanket.

And remember to get dressed for bed. Once again, we can learn from our ancestors who often went to bed adorned in bedsocks, a nightcap and even gloves. You might feel silly but who cares? Better to be warm.

If you need to venture outdoors try to plan ahead. Keep an eye on the weather forecast so you won’t need to go out during a particularly cold snap or when it’s icy underfoot. When you have to go out, put on your warmest clothes and try to make sure the top layer is waterproof and windproof. Once you get wet and chilled by a penetrating wind, it’s hard to get warm again. Also, it’s a good idea to wrap a scarf around your mouth and nose, as this will help to warm the air before you breathe it in.

Choose boots or shoes with good non-slip soles and even if you don’t usually use a walking stick or pole, it can give added security and support in cold weather. Don’t be too proud to ask for help – you’ll probably be surprised to find there’s no shortage of friends and good neighbours more than happy to nip to the shops for you when it’s cold outside. And if you’re one of those friends or neighbours, don’t wait to be asked. Why not pop round or phone to make the offer now?

Finally, if you think you’re starting with a cough or cold, it’s better to speak to a pharmacist as soon as possible, before it develops into something more serious. Pharmacists are highly trained medical professionals who will be able to provide a wide variety of over-the-counter medicines, or refer you to a doctor if they think it’s necessary.

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