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The Weather: Wreaking Havoc on Health

The weather forecast may be a strong predictor of how you're going to feel.
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Chilly, Damp Weather Stiffens Joints continued...

"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.

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Reviewed on August 11, 2009
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