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7 Winter-Health Questions - With Expert Tips

happy-woman-snowCozy up with these medical experts as they answer your curious winter-health questions.

How can I avoid the Christmas heart attack?

They call them the “merry Christmas coronary” and the “happy New Year heart attack.” Yes, you may be more likely to die of a heart attack during the winter holidays than at any other time of year. Causes include too much stress (leading to high blood pressure), food, alcohol and tobacco, and a variation from regular exercise routines.

Find time to relax, even during the busiest of seasons, and get enough sleep. If you experience any symptoms—such as chest pain, unexplained sweating, jaw or arm pain, shortness of breath, or even indigestion—please consult a doctor immediately. Do not wait until after the holidays.

Q. What are the best nonprescription cough medicines?
Dextromethorphan (DM) and codeine are commonly found in nonprescription cough and cold medicines. Both are good, but codeine remains the gold standard. It’s usually behind the counter, and it requires a prescription in some states. Codeine is prone to side effects, including stomach distress. It’s important to follow the directions and report any side effects to your physician or pharmacist.

Besides medicine, humidification can help, such as with a cool-mist vaporizer or a hot shower. And treating other cold symptoms (such as a runny nose with antihistamines) might prove beneficial. If you have wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, or a history of asthma, or if the cough persists, see your doctor.

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Q. Can shoveling snow really give you a heart attack?
Snow-shoveling has gotten a bad reputation, but it’s not any more dangerous than other strenuous activities. The problem is, people who don’t do any other kinds of hard physical work sometimes do go out and shovel.

If you’re healthy and in good shape, and you stop if you feel very winded, it’s probably safe to shovel snow. If you develop chest pain or shortness of breath when doing any kind of exercise, stop! If there are reasons to be concerned about your heart (such as high cholesterol or smoking), then check with your doctor ahead of time.

Q. How can I prevent asthma symptoms triggered by cold air?
Some people develop asthma symptoms (wheezing and coughing) after breathing in cold air. This can be particularly troublesome for athletes who run or others who participate in winter sports. Warming the air before it enters your lungs can help. Masks or scarves may be useful. Some people may require prescription medication before beginning activities that trigger symptoms.


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  • Barry Cohen, M.D., board-certified cardiologist; medical director, cardiac catheterization lab, Gagnon Cardiovascular Institute, Morristown, N.J.; author, Coronary Heart Disease: A Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment.
  • Scott J. Gillin, M.D., board-certified gastroenterologist, Summit Medical Group, Berkeley Heights, N.J.
  • Andrea E. Gordon, M.D., board-certified family doctor practicing integrative medicine; assistant professor of family medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Malden, Mass.
  • Charles D. Ponte, Pharm.D., professor of clinical pharmacy and family medicine, West Virginia University.

Last updated and/or approved: November 2010.
Original articles appeared in various issues of the former print magazine. Bios current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

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