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Can a sudden change in the weather affect your health?

Can a sudden shift in the weather trigger certain illnesses? Absolutely, says Vikash Modi, M.D., a family medicine physician at Piedmont. In fact, climate change is one of the environmental risk factors most doctors consider when assessing their patients for certain conditions.

“Changes in weather are basically challenges to our immune system and to our musculoskeletal system,” Dr. Modi says. “Our bodies get used to a certain climate, and when those things change suddenly, our body has to try to adapt. Unfortunately, sometimes our bodies have a difficult time adjusting, which can trigger an illness.”

Here are six health conditions that can be triggered by a sudden change in the weather:

1. Infections and illnesses of the upper respiratory tract. “Often we'll discover that patients are dressing inappropriately,” Dr. Modi says. “They're not wearing enough layers or they're wearing too many layers, and so their bodies get overheated or too cold. That can affect their immune response and can trigger upper respiratory infections.”

When temperatures are fluctuating, Dr. Modi recommend dressing in light layers.

“Dressing in light layers is incredibly important to protect from cold temperatures in the morning and at night, and you're still able to shed those layers in the warm mid-days or indoor settings,” Dr. Modi says.

2. Chronic sinus and throat issues. Heating and air systems struggle to keep up with fluctuating temperatures, and rapidly alternating heating and cooling systems can dehumidify air.

Dehumidified air filled with pollen, dust, mold and mildew is a perfect storm for severe and chronic sinus and throat issues. So it’s important to change heating and air filters every six months.

“If your filters haven’t been changed in more than six months, they are likely blowing dust, mold and mildew-ridden air on you and your family while you are at home or work,” Dr. Modi says.

Dr. Modi also recommends purchasing a humidifier to add moisture to the air.

3. Seasonal asthma and bronchitis trigged by cold air. Cold air can trigger seasonal asthma or bronchitis. People who have these conditions should be prepared to use an inhaler seasonally to avoid severe and chronic coughing episodes.

“There is a physiological response to cold air that causes your airways to close down and tighten up,” Dr. Modi says. “If you have asthma, that response can be dangerous. You'll see a lot of people who have bronchitis, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath throughout cold temperatures.  So we need to be a little more aggressive with the control of their lung health.”

4. Seasonal allergies from pollen.  “Plants get just as confused as people do with the changing weather patterns,” Dr. Modi says. “This means flowers bloom early and release pollen, which can aggravate people with seasonal allergies.”

5. Cold and flu outbreaks. As the weather temporarily improves, it is common for families, co-workers, and school children to gather for group activities.  If one person is sick, you may see a minor “outbreak” of illness following those gatherings.

“When large groups gather together, we all need to be a little more careful about hand hygiene and covering our mouths and noses with coughing and sneezing,” Dr. Modi says. “It’s also important to frequently clean shared spaces to control the spread of infections.”

6. Muscle and joint injuries. When the weather warms up, people are eager to head outdoors. But being extremely active on muscles and joints that have been hibernating during the cold winter months can lead to injuries.

“A good rule to remember before jumping into those fun physical activities is to start low and go slow, at least initially,” Dr. Modi says. “It might take a few weeks to shake the rust off. But it will be worth the wait.”

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