This story was originally published in the Herald-Leader on Jan. 15, 2008, when temperatures were fluctuating wildly and leading many to complain of seemingly weather-related aches and pains — much like the case the past week.
One day it's 70 degrees, the next it's 30. You think Kentucky's quick-changing weather does a number on your body?
Evidence is mixed on how much the weather affects your aches, flu bugs and congestion. Some say that even in the best of weather, how you feel is a fluid state. Even in ideal weather, your sinuses might feel coated by molasses; your joints might swell.
And then there are those who say that when the temperature plummets, then soars, their aches go global. They're achy, congested, complaining and paying hourly calls to the "aches and pains index" on The Weather Channel Web site.
These are our people. The few, the hurting: Kentuckians.
Here's a quick guide to why winter weather is the culprit for more than just panic pillaging of milk and bread — and what you can do about it.
It's not just you; it's your sinuses: Why have you been unable for months to take a breath that isn't accompanied by the rattle of nasal mucous?
It could be a little demon called non-allergic rhinitis. Weather shifts, in particularly barometric changes, can cause changes in your nasal membranes that make your nose really stuffy or runny.
If you've bought into the conventional wisdom that the hot, dry air that you pump into your house as heat might be a problem, there's another solution besides buying a humidifier. Put that moisture directly into your sinuses by using a neti pot nasal irrigator or buying saline nose drops.
Be careful with that humidifier. Adding too much moisture to the house can increase potential for growth of dust mites and molds.
Dr. Beth Miller, director of the University of Kentucky HealthCare Asthma, Allergy and Sinus Clinics, says there's one group that does suffer more when temperatures run cold: asthmatics.
But sinuses are prone to a raft of problems anyway. In winter, there are indoor allergens and dust mites. In spring and summer and even in fall, there are the outdoor pollens. If there's a season that doesn't need Sudafed, we'd like to see it.
Still, don't use Sudafed like Tic Tacs. Miller says to watch dosing yourself with over-the-counter medications. If you have a persistent sinus problem, see your doctor and ask about prescription medicine.
It's your aching head: A migraine headache is the vascular spasm of cerebral arteries: your head's blood vessels shooting as if they're in an arcade.
Abrupt temperature changes can trigger migraines. Headache, the puckishly named "journal of head and face pain," notes that "rapid atmospheric variations" are triggers more often in "mixed headaches" than in migraine or tension headaches. We say: The key word is headache. If it sends you looking for the nearest two-pack of Advil, it's real pain.
It's your joints: Cold weather can cause tendons, ligaments and muscles surrounding joints to contract, causing pain. A Tokyo study found that rheumatoid arthritis patients experience increases in pain and inflammation from fall to spring.
"Any joint that has smoldering arthritis in it will be a little stiffer when it's cold than when it's warm," says Dr. Robert Lightfoot, who is on the rheumatology faculty at UK.
But the real joint bedeviler isn't temperature: It's falling barometric pressure. That's why arthritis sufferers who flee Kentucky for Florida are simply trading in one set of barometric aches for another. Lightfoot says that lower pressure makes a joint throb more. That's going to be true whether you look out your window on a beach or a Kentucky Wildcats billboard.
But just as you can't work out arthritis with excessive exercise, it's also bad to sit around and hope the symptoms go away on their own. After all, when are your joints at their creakiest? When you get out of bed in the morning and feel as if your body has been resting on a bed of concrete.
"Any weather that's not conducive to exercising makes you feel worse," Lightfoot says.
It's lack of sunlight: When you stay inside during the winter under a heap of blankets with a remote in your hand, you miss out on what little sunlight there is.
The potential health problems are legion: Seasonal affective disorder. Not getting enough Vitamin D, for which you have to expose some skin to sunlight. Not exercising, and getting flabby and depressed and way too interested in Law & Order marathons.
What can I do about it?
Take in as much sunlight and fresh air as you can. Use a humidifier. Treat your aching joints to warm showers and heating pads — or use ice packs to decrease swelling. Stretch and exercise — outdoors when you can, indoors when the outdoor temperatures plummet. If problems are severe or prolonged, see your doctor. Ask about allergy testing. Ask about new treatments for arthritis.
The healthiest weather: For asthma sufferers, you want a place where there aren't fast shifts in weather or temperature: not Kentucky, but also not Florida, because of the tropical-storm season. Arizona is dry but too hot.
You want the Atlantic seaboard in the summer. During the rest of the year, you want a climate that's not too wet, with minimal extremes in temperature — not too many days above 90 degrees or below 32 degrees: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, San Francisco.
Compared with that, Kentucky — by turns wintry blast and hell hot, bone dry and sodden — looks like a pollen- and mold-perpetuation project.
But take heart: Spring allergies are only two months away.