Many of these symptoms might be familiar; perhaps you've experienced them for years, every time the temperature drops. But that doesn't mean they're normal or unavoidable — yes, Virginia, it is unusual to have colds on and off from autumn to spring, to have a cough that lasts three months, or to have your fingers go white every time you spend some time in the freezing outdoors. Just because it's normal for you, doesn't mean it's not actually a health concern.
So if any of the six symptoms below strike a chord, get yourself checked out by a doctor — yes, even if you're sure it's not a big deal/ you hate causing a fuss/don't want to bother the doctor/whatever other excuse you've been using to get out of a GP visit. Just go. Your lungs, circulation, immune system or whatever else will thank you.
1. White Fingers
If you live in a spectacularly cold area, you're doubtless familiar with the one serious problem that whitened fingertips after exposure to freezing weather can signal: frostbite. But if you habitually suffer from fingers whiter than Santa's beard every time you spend some time outdoors, you may have a different problem — a condition called Raynaud's syndrome.
Raynaud's syndrome is essentially a malfunctioning of the blood vessels in your extremities. If they're exposed to cold or stress, they'll contract temporarily, restricting the blood flow massively and leading to the syndrome's trademark creepy whiteness. As the blood vessels relax and the blood returns, your fingers will flush and hurt. Raynaud's is pretty common (up to 20 percent of adults worldwide have it), but it's also got some serious possible side effects, including ulcers — so if you're nodding your head in recognition here, hop it to your GP.
2. Flushed Cheeks
The winter season is all about pink cheeks, right? What would the season be without flushed-cheek children frolicking and taking sleigh rides? Yep, but if you're getting a bit too flushed, you could actually be afflicted with something more serious than festive cheer.
If you've noticed that your flushed cheeks last for a long time or seem to be lingering and sticking around like a sunburn, you may have the beginnings of rosacea, a dermal disease related to the blood vessels in your face. As the name indicates, it shows up as a painful rosiness and redness of the skin, as well as occasional pimples. But if you identify with all these symptoms, don't worry — you're not alone. Up to 10 percent of people in cold countries suffer from rosacea, and there are a host of treatments available, from facial gels to avoiding triggers (coffee is, alas, partially responsible). So even if you feel like it's not making a major dent in your life, you still might want to get your potential rosacea checked out.
When you come in out of the cold weather, do your lungs usually sound like a bellows? Wheezing — which typically involves a whistling noise and feeling of restriction when you breathe — isn't actually a normal respiratory reaction to the cold, so if you've started to give a decent impression of a deflating balloon every time you head indoors, you need to see a doctor.
Wheezing can be a sign of many health issues, including bronchial infections, asthma and even allergies. If you're wheezing and you know you won't be able to see a doctor for a while, make sure to at least wrap yourself up very well every time you go outside (particularly around the neck and face), and try not to do exercise in cold air (which, if you have asthma will, can leave you with a wheeze so intense, it may sound like a seal bark).
4. A Cough That Won't Go Away
The concept of a "persistent cough" doesn't really hit home until you've actually spent weeks or months with the thing hanging around, interrupting your sleep and making you the most hated person in any movie theater you enter. Coughs are often benign, but it is important to watch how long they last. If they don't clear up in less than two weeks, you may just have lasting irritation in your airways after a cold or could be suffering from an allergy — but your cough might also be pointing to other health conditions.
A prolonged cough may mean that you have developed a bacterial infection in your airways, particularly if you notice that the cough's accompanied by a bit of pain. The four other common causes of prolonged cough, according to Harvard research, are a postnasal drip, asthma, acid reflux, or certain blood pressure medications which induce cough — and all of these situations deserve medical attention. And in extremely rare circumstances, a cough that won't go away can also be a sign of lung cancer. So don't feel like you should just wait for it to go away on its own.
5. Extremely Dry Lips
Dry lips are a constant struggle for most of us in cold weather, but if the problem persists even when you've smothered them in every chapped lip solution known to man, you may actually deal dealing with a more unusual problem: a vitamin A overdose. Women are only supposed to have 700mg of vitamin A per day, and if you're exceeding that, your body may be reacting in some unusual ways.
A vitamin A overdose is known as hypervitaminosis A, and it's not fun: along with dry, cracked lips, your skin and mucus membranes go dry and you may suffer from hair loss. It's most often caused by people taking too many vitamin A supplements (like cod liver oil) and also occurs as a side effect of some heavy-duty acne meds. So if you're concerned, be very sensible when it comes to supplement use and the balance of vitamin A-heavy foods like sweet potato and tuna in your diet.
6. Persistent Colds
Long-term vegetarians and vegans will probably be familiar with this one: if your body seems to be completely incapable of recovering from colds, or only lets you feel healthy for a few days before you catch the next one, you might actually have an iron deficiency affecting your immune system. The medical term is iron deficiency anemia, and it leaves your body vulnerable to infections and viral illnesses.
Iron plays a big role in the immune system; it is a necessity for red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. If those red blood cells are not working properly, your system gets fatigued and oxygen-starved and can't fight off illness. You can fight this deficiency through upping your consumption of vegetarian-friendly iron-rich foods, like dark leafy green veggies, legumes, and whole grains. And if you aren't a vegetarian, one of the most highly recommended ways to combat iron deficiency anemia is seriously seasonally appropriate: eat dark turkey meat, which has tons of iron. So bring on that Christmas lunch early! You just have to have the turkey leg, for medical reasons.