The Weather: Wreaking Havoc on Health

The weather forecast may be a strong predictor of how you're going to feel.

From the WebMD Archives

We all know people who blame the weather for their achy joints, killer headaches, and many other health woes. But proving these claims has been a bit more elusive.

In recent years, however, scientists have become increasingly interested in attempting to understand just how various weather extremes and changing patterns affect our health. Many experts say that weather does account for some adverse health symptoms.

WebMD talked to experts to learn just what is known about weather's role on our health and what we can do to minimize its mighty influence.

Allergies: Is It Pollen or the Weather?

The image of someone sneezing uncontrollably during springtime, when lots of pollen is floating around in the air, is a familiar one. And for people who have allergies to pollen, an uptick in symptoms during the spring -- including sneezing, stuffiness, and even difficulty breathing -- is a very real problem that can pose serious risks. Several studies show a surge in emergency room visits for children and adults during seasons when pollen counts rise. For those folks allergic to pollen from flowers, trees, and grasses, antihistamines often quell the symptoms that would otherwise make spring a miserable season.

But plenty of people attribute their allergy-like symptoms to pollen when the weather -- not allergens per se -- may be to blame. Unlike allergic rhinitis, non-allergic rhinitis can be brought on by sudden changes in temperature and humidity. People with nonallergic rhinitis would test negative for any specific allergies.

The reason for the confusion between allergic and nonallergic rhinitis is simple. They both tend to occur at the same time of year and produce similar symptoms: swollen nasal passages, sneezing, and congestion.

Though the symptoms may be the same, the treatment is not.

"People with nonallergic rhinitis are not going to respond to antihistamines," says Jonathan Bernstein, MD, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati. "People buy this stuff and don't understand why it's not working."

For his patients with nonallergic rhinitis, Bernstein generally recommends nasal irrigation (a saline solution sprayed in the nose), a nasal steroid to shrink swollen nasal passages, or decongestants.

But before using any treatment, Bernstein strongly urges people suffering from allergy-like symptoms to get a diagnosis from their doctor rather than self-diagnosing and medicating. "Is it due to viruses, humidity, cold temperatures? We try to evaluate the condition as a whole," Bernstein tells WebMD.

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Cold Weather, Thunderstorms Can Trigger Asthma Attacks

For people with asthma, a variety of triggers can result in inflamed airways, provoking an asthma attack. It turns out weather is one of them.

With exercise-induced asthma, cold weather can signal trouble. "When breathing in fast, the air they exchange doesn't have a chance to warm up," says David Hagaman, MD, medical director at the Vanderbilt Asthma, Sinus and Allergy Program. As a result, the increased cooling of the airway triggers the airway to react by swelling.

For the many asthma patients who list pollen as a primary trigger, thunderstorms can be a real problem. A recent study in the journal Allergy described how wind in thunderstorms carries pollen grains at ground level that get into the lower part of the airway, sending high numbers of asthma patients to hospitals for the treatment of asthma attacks.

Migraine Headaches and Weather Changes

Falling barometric pressure, a sharp increase in humidity, a sudden drop in temperature -- these weather changes may trigger migraines in people already susceptible to them.

And it appears that stable weather may help reduce the incidence of migraines. "I had a patient here in New York who moved to Arizona and experienced an astounding improvement in her migraines," says Richard Lipton, MD, director of the Montefiore Headache Center. While New Yorkers endure sudden and frequent changes in humidity levels and temperature, Arizona residents enjoy fairly uniform conditions marked by dry, warm air.

Research supports the theory that changing weather triggers migraines. In one survey that asked migraine sufferers to list triggers, 53% responded "weather."

Not everyone can move to a different climate so they can feel better. But migraine sufferers can take some action against weather-induced headaches. First, Lipton urges his patients to keep a diary of their migraines to make cause-and-effect connections. Then, if weather changes seem to play a role in migraines, the next step may be to discuss pretreatment with a doctor to avoid the onset of pain.

Chilly, Damp Weather Stiffens Joints

While it's unusual for migraine sufferers to move for improved health, it's not uncommon for people with joint pain to do so -- particularly the elderly. "A lot of our patients migrate to warmer weather because they cannot tolerate the pain," says Javad Parvizi, MD, PhD, a joint specialist at the Rothman Institute at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. In studying the relationship of weather to arthritic pain in weight-bearing joints, Parvizi says that his preliminary data show a significant correlation between joint pain and changes in weather.

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"Baseline pain appears to be strongly affected by a drop in temperature and a change in humidity. Almost 80% to 90% of patients feel a difference in their pain's intensity and sensitivity," Parvizi tells WebMD.

Instead of simply reacting to weather-associated increases in joint pain with measures like placing heating pads over painful joints and doubling up on analgesics, Parvizi recommends that people use proactive measures to improve joint function, such as engaging in nonweight-bearing exercises. Other than that, he admits, "There's not a lot that can be done."

Extreme Temperatures Increase Heart Risk

When asked about the greatest exertion-related risk to patients with heart disease, cardiologist Steve Pollock, MD, director of St. Joseph's Heart Institute in Towson, Md., doesn't make a single mention of extreme activities like bungee jumping or deep-sea diving. "The only restriction I place on patients with heart disease is this: no shoveling snow," he tells WebMD.

Already, people who suffer from heart disease can have narrowed coronary arteries. Add to these factors the additional exertion required for shoveling snow, and the scenario can quickly turn into a dangerous, even deadly, heart attack.

Extreme heat presents a problem too, as having heart disease makes it harder to regulate the body's core temperature. "People forget they have heart disease. All of a sudden, they're sweating profusely and dehydrated," Pollock says, noting factors that can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Old age also predisposes people to heat-related illnesses. "Once you get past 65, the thermoregulatory system has a harder time staying balanced," says meteorologist Scott Sheridan, PhD, associate professor of climatology at Kent State University.

The Chicago heat wave of 1995 bore this out. Of the 465 heat-related deaths that occurred then, more than half of the victims were 75 or older.

Although people with risk factors are most vulnerable to the dangers of extreme temperatures, no one is immune to their effects. Consider Corey Stringer, the 27-year-old NFL All-Pro offensive lineman who died of heat stroke during a practice marked by high heat and humidity.

"The idea that certain groups are more vulnerable than others to weather extremes shouldn't preclude anyone from protecting themselves," warns Sheridan.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 11, 2009

Sources

SOURCES:

Jonathan Bernstein, MD, professor of clinical medicine, University of Cincinnati.

David Hagaman, MD, medical director, Vanderbilt Asthma, Sinus and Allergy Program, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn.

D'Amato, G. Allergy, January 2007; vol 62: pp 11-16.

Richard Lipton, MD, director, Montefiore Headache Center.

Kelman, L. Cephalagia, May 2007; vol 27: pp 394-402.

Javad Parvizi, MD, PhD, joint specialist, Rothman Institute, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia.

Steve Pollock, MD, director, St. Joseph's Heart Institute, Towson, Md.

Scott Sheridan, PhD, associate professor of climatology, Kent State University, Ohio.

CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Aug. 11, 1995; vol 44: pp 577-579.

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