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Winter has started to set in here in southeastern Manitoba and there are ways for us to keep our health through these next few chilly months.

Dr. Denis Fortier is the vice-president of medical services for Southern Health-Sante Sud. He says there are four categories to consider - snow and ice, cold and wind, viruses, and indoor environments.

In regards to snow and ice, Dr. Fortier says falling can cause sprains or breaks adding there are conditions were motor vehicle collisions are a higher risk, along with heart problems from exerting ourselves while shoveling.

"While we're out shoveling snow, that's definitely hard on our heart. We need to be careful about that. Sometimes there are more cases of angina or heart attacks during the winter months because of the heavy snow and the exertion related to that."

Dr. Fortier says it's important to wear proper footwear which will help prevent slipping on ice, putting salt down on walkways and outdoor stairs, as well as taking breaks while shoveling the driveway to put less strain on the heart.

2012 10 snowy roadDr. Fortier says snow and ice covered roads can be more hazardous.With cold and wind, Dr. Fortier notes the main concerns are hypothermia and frostbite.

"Frostbite is the most common. Basically, when we're faced with too much cold or a cold windchill, our body needs to stay warm, our body works best at 36ºC-37ºC. If we start lowering our temperature some very bad things start happeing to our body."

He says these bad things include the body moving the blood supply away from our extremities (fingers and toes) to keep vital organs warm and supplied with sufficient amounts of oxygen.

"The blood vessels start narrowing so there's less warm blood going to the tips of our fingers meaning our fingers get cold and frostbitten. Sometimes they can die because the cells die from lack of circulation because it's so cold."

Dr. Fortier notes frostbite can appear on our skin as white spots. He says it's best to dress in layers because it's easier to take a layer off if you're too warm then being away from home and not having the ability to add more layers.

"Let's acknowledge that we are living in the north and we do have winter, let's dress appropriately in good boots and layers."

He says he has heard people complaining that winter seems to be getting colder each year, however, he reasons, this is not the case.

"We don't go out as much as we used to. We stay indoors, we don't welcome the cold. We're often just going from point A to point B so we don't get dressed very well because we know that we're going to get into a pre-heated car and then we're going to go to the mall or work where it's heated. I think culturally we've changed and we're not as resistant."

Dr. Fortier says in the months of November to January we are the most prone to being infected with certain viruses including the flu. He adds influenza is a real danger for the elderly, very young, and those with serious illnesses so it's best for everyone to get the flu shot to prevent being infected with the viruses or acting as a carrier.

He notes there are two other viruses, one is RSV or Respiratory Syncytial Virus and the other is the stomach flu. 

"RSV seems to affect our youth quite a bit. It's that loud, barky cough, it sounds almost like a seal when they're coughing. It can get them quite ill and many young children are admitted to hospital during RSV season. Then there's the stomach flu, it just seems to always come around Christmas time."

Janelle Pachal is a CNPA certified product advisor at Good N' Natural. Pachal says keeping our health is a daily process, summer through winter. However, she notes, in winter it's beneficial to kick up the vitamin C, echinacea, and oregano from either supplements or whole foods.

"Germs are everywhere and it's great for kids in school to get their supplements or vitamin C to help prevent carrying it to other kids in their classroom. Same with elderly. As we age our immune system takes more of a beating. But, realistically, everyone should be taking care of themselves and doing the best they can with their food on a daily basis to be protected as much as possible."

Pachal says zinc is also good for the body and can be found in pumpkin seeds, leafy greens, and green vegetables.

Dr. Fortier adds it's also important to wash your hands before preparing a meal, and especially after using the washroom.

Lastly, indoor environments. Dr. Fortier says in winter houses can drop down to humidity levels which are quite dry. 

"Our skin and our mucous membranes, our nose, our mouth, our throat, they don't like 30% humidity levels. They prefer 40-50% humidity levels. So, if we don't take care to ensure that the air is humidified in our house, we're going to suffer from dy and itchy skin."

 He says he also sees a lot of sinus conditions which appear as allergies, while some are true allergies, due to house mites that collect.

"I know we often call summer the allergy season, which it absolutely is, but in the house, especially if you have carpets, we have things called house dust mites that collect and some people are allergic to those."

Pachal says she has found those who suffer from allergies in the summertime have an overactive immune system and are more likely to have colds and the flu in winter, when they're immune system is underactive. 

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