But the subzero season’s frosty reception isn’t entirely weather-related—or deserved.
The following four myths about the health perils of winter rank up there with the abominable snowman. So our experts will help you stop worrying about stuff that doesn’t really matter so you can focus on things that do.
1. Allergies Hibernate in the Cold
You waved off ragweed in the fall, so you’re done wheezing for the next few months, right? Maybe not.
“People tend to focus on pollen and hay fever as the limit of their allergy risks,” says John Santilli, M.D., an allergist and immunologist in Shelton, Connecticut.
But mold and dust-mite allergies in the fall and winter are more common than you’d think.
Start with that fresh evergreen you haul into your living room every December. Mold spores can cling to the tree and multiply indoors.
In a 2007 study, Dr. Santilli set up a real Christmas tree in a home and found that mold counts increased fivefold after 2 weeks.
“It’s like bringing a pile of leaves into the house,” he says. “Even if you aren’t allergic, the mold could still cause irritation, leading to upper respiratory or sinus infections.”
Decorations stored in a damp basement or attic are also sources of mold and dust mites. The fact that you close up your house in cold weather doesn’t help either.
“Closing windows and turning up the heat recirculates air and raises dust that had been collecting all spring and summer,” says University of Arizona pulmonologist Paul Enright, M.D.
Your new strategy: Shake out the bad stuff
If only a live tree will do, chop one down at a local Christmas tree farm.
“Decay doesn’t start until a week after the tree is cut down,” says Dr. Santilli.
Ask the farmer if he has a tree shaker, which can help free any mold spores, loose pine needles, or lingering pollen.
After the holidays, pack decorations in airtight plastic tubs to block out mold and dust mites. (Cardboard encourages mold growth.)
Finally, install a HEPA filter in your HVAC system. These can remove up to 99 percent of dust and other particles, Dr. Santilli says.
2. Suicides Peak over the Holidays
The onslaught of stressors—financial strain, dinner with the in-laws, harsh weather—would seem to be a perfect storm for suicide.
“People mistakenly connect the notion of the holiday blues with people killing themselves,” says David Rudd, Ph.D., dean of the college of social and behavioral science at the University of Utah.
The reality is that suicides drop to a yearly low in December and peak in spring and summer, according to a 2008 study in the journal Psychiatry.
“Social cohesion reduces risk of suicide—even if you’re packed into a room with relatives you hate,” Rudd says. “It makes it harder to deny the impact of your death, and offers the hope of help.”
But the holiday season is not without risk.
British researchers found that rates of deliberate self-harm jump on New Year’s Day, and the Psychiatry Research study shows that rates of suicide among men begin to rise in January from their December lows.
“That sense of support from the holidays evaporates,” Rudd says. “Suicidal people may expect the holidays to resolve their depression. If that doesn’t happen, they can end up feeling even worse.”
Your new strategy: Manageable resolutions
Instead of setting yearlong goals, shoot for a good month or even a week—and start now, not January 1st.
“Long-term goals facilitate procrastination, which can lead to hopelessness,” says Rudd. “Work in an incremental fashion so you feel accomplished.”
If your goal is to lose weight, resolve to join a winter rec league. Exercise can ward off depression, plus you’ll maintain social connections, he says.
3. Going Outside with Wet Hair Will Give You a Cold
Wet hair, icy temperatures, and exposed heads don’t cause colds—viruses do.
“Rhinovirus actually survives better from late spring through early fall, when humidity is high,” says Jack Gwaltney Jr., M.D., a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia medical school and founder of commoncold.org.
“But in the mild weather, we aren’t crowded together indoors, making exposure less likely.”
Your new strategy: Don’t blow it.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer kills the rhinovirus more effectively than hand washing—but probably still won’t slash your risk of catching a cold, according to recent University of Virginia research.
“Hand transfer may not play as significant a role in the spread of rhinovirus as we thought,” says study author Ronald Turner, M.D. “Conversely, airborne transfer may be more important than previously recognized.”
While there’s no proven way to stop the snotty virus, you can control the symptoms.
If you’re already infected, don’t forcibly drain your schnozz—it could make matters worse.
According to Dr. Gwaltney’s research, the pressure of nose-blowing propels germ-laden mucus into your sinuses, potentially causing inflammation and secondary infection.
Pinching your nose while sneezing could have the same effect. Cough or sneeze with nostrils open into a tissue (this also reduces droplet spread), and fight runny nose with an antihistamine, such as Dimetapp or Chlor-Trimeton, he says.
4. A Roaring Fire Will Keep You Warm
This is true—as long as you’re sitting about 2 feet from the blaze.
The rest of your house may as well be an ice hotel. That’s because an open hearth fireplace acts as a vacuum.
“It will actually cool the house by drawing warm air out through the chimney,” says Kirk Smith, Ph.D., a professor of global environmental health at the University of California at Berkeley.
What isn’t sucked entirely outside: wood smoke, which contains chemicals similar to those found in cigarettes.
Smoke particles are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, potentially causing infection.
“There are little macrophages, a type of white blood cell, in the tiny air sacs in your lungs. They’re designed to grab bacteria,” Smith says. “They are damaged by wood smoke, so they don’t operate as well.”
Smoke particles may also infiltrate the bloodstream and cause heartdisease, he says.
A 2008 study found that air levels of benzo(a)pyrene—a potential human carcinogen—were four times higher in homes after a wood fire had blazed for an average of 8 hours.
Your new strategy: A controlled burn
Choose hardwoods, such as ash and beech, which emit lower levels of damaging particles than softwoods do.
And use glass fireplace doors. These radiate heat into your home, eliminate the vacuum effect, and shield you from smoke, Smith says.
Another option is synthetic logs made from wax and compressed sawdust or even coffee grounds, which are more combustible than cordwood. In fact, a 2006 Canadian study found that Java-Log Firelogs (pinemountainbrands.com) released lower amounts of volatile organic compounds than other wax logs.