7 health conditions that hit women worse in winter – and how to deal with them

25th November, 2022 • 20 min read

There’s no denying it – women are more likely than men to get some health conditions. And it turns out the cold, dark days of winter can bring more of these illnesses on, or make symptoms worse.

“If you’re struggling with flare-ups of winter depression, eczema or arthritis, or your asthma or period pain feels worse, the first thing to know is that you’re not imagining it!” says Healthily expert

Dr Adiele Hoffman
. “And the second thing to know is – there’s a lot you can do with self-care and ways of getting support to make winter easier.”

Here’s what you need to know…

Why winter health is a feminist issue

Winter is an easy time of year for anyone’s wellbeing to take a hit. But feeling unwell in winter is something that can really affect women for 4 key reasons:

  • some key health issues that women experience more often than men get worse in cold weather – from
    Raynaud’s syndrome
    and
    arthritis
    to
    eczema
    ,
    asthma
    ,
    period pain
    and
    migraines
    . Women are also more likely to get winter depression due to darker days, sometimes known as
    seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  • when women are in pain, there’s evidence to show they’re less likely to get the right pain management support
  • women are more likely to look after sick children or elderly relatives, so they’re at risk of more stress from trying to juggle work and childcare, plus they’re more likely to pick up winter viruses such as
    flu
    ,
    COVID-19
    and the
    common cold
  • women are less likely to take time off, but they’re still more likely to take on the majority of housework and family care, alongside their jobs

The symptoms linked to all of these conditions can be painful, frustrating and make you feel low emotionally – perhaps you’re not sleeping well because of arthritis that’s triggered by the winter cold, leaving you with no energy during the day. Or you might feel down and not in the mood to socialize because of winter depression, which can leave you feeling isolated and alone.

With all of this going on, it can be hard to make the most of winter festivities, such as Christmas parties, Halloween, Diwali, Hanukkah, Las Posadas and New Year celebrations. But it doesn’t always have to be this way – there are things you can do to feel better.

Why do we get sicker in the winter?

We’re all more likely to get ill in the winter. We spend much more time indoors, which allows germs to spread more easily than they do during the summer months.

And this year, it could be even harder to stay well. The

cost of living crisis
means more of us will be avoiding putting on the heating. And, if you have certain pre-existing medical conditions, this may mean your symptoms could get worse.

“A colder home may cause a flare up of arthritis joint pain, or swollen and painful fingers caused by Raynaud’s phenomenon, for example. But there are things you can do to control your symptoms,” says Dr Adiele.

Below we outline 7 health conditions that can get worse for women in the winter, along with self-care tips to help you manage them.

Winter eczema

31.6 million people in the US have eczema, but women are more likely to be affected by some types, including the most common kind of eczema,

atopic dermatitis
. Women are also more likely to get
varicose eczema
– this creates itchy areas of skin over and around a patch of varicose veins, which can be triggered by female hormones and pregnancy.

It’s true that eczema flares come and go throughout the year, and that they can be caused by many different things. But if you already have eczema, you may have noticed your symptoms getting worse in winter, especially the areas on your body most exposed to air, like your hands and face. This is because:

  • cold and dry air, harsh winds and low humidity during the winter all act together to dry your skin out more
  • central heating keeps you feeling warm and snug, but it dries the air in your home, potentially causing more flares, such as eczema winter rashes on your hands and your body

Read more about eczema and the medical treatments you can get.

Self-care tips for winter eczema

So, what can you do about it? Here’s how to keep your eczema flares to a minimum in the winter.

Manage your temperature well

  • keep all rooms at a regular temperature (64.4°F/18°C) – eczema flares are often triggered by changes in temperature, but keeping your home at a constant level will help this. You could also try wearing thin layers of clothing – this means you can slowly build up to a good temperature by adding more layers, or cool yourself down by removing items
  • avoid hot showers – you might prefer a steamy hot shower in the winter, but hot water can remove the protective oils in your skin and cause more inflammation. Take a comfortably warm bath or shower instead
  • choose soft, cotton fabrics to stay warm – hats, scarves, underwear, socks and gloves often help to keep you warm in the winter, but if they’re made from rough, scratchy material, they may irritate your eczema. If you can, wear 100% cotton items

Work out how humid your air should be

  • if you need less humidity, air your rooms by opening the windows daily
    dust mites
    and
    mold spores
    are common triggers for people with eczema, and they’re more likely in winter when homes are poorly ventilated. But airing out your home properly can help prevent this
  • if you need more humidity, place a bowl of water near radiators in your home or buy a humidifier – central heating can dry the air in your home and make your eczema worse, but placing moisture near a radiator or getting a humidifier can help your skin retain more moisture. Make sure you don’t sit too close to a radiator or an open fire, though, as this can dry your skin out more. And if dust mites or mold spores are a trigger for you, be aware that higher humidity can help them grow

Adjust your skincare routine

  • focus on areas that are more exposed to the winter weather – your face, lips and hands are most likely to be affected by the cold because they’re less protected by clothing, so make sure to apply extra ointments, balms or creams to these areas before heading outside
  • try another cream – if you’re noticing flare-ups, a different emollient (medical cream for eczema) might help – you can buy these from your local pharmacy. The best moisturizer for dry skin is unperfumed and has a thicker consistency. Try applying it as soon as you get out of the shower to soothe skin and lock in more moisture
  • avoid licking your lips – most people’s lips feel drier during the winter because of the cold, dry air. Licking them might feel like you’re moistening them, but it just dries the skin out more

Boost your immunity

  • eat well, get enough rest and wash your hands often – winter is the season for colds, flu and other viruses to spread. Any of these illnesses can make your eczema worse by causing a general flare up, or lead to skin irritation when you’re blowing your nose with tissues. Get plenty of rest and
    eat a healthy diet
    to help avoid catching one of these bugs

Seasonal flu

You feel weak and exhausted, with body aches, a fever and sometimes diarrhea. You probably have a headache and a blocked nose too, and you might even need to be sick.

This could be the

flu
, which is spread by droplets in the air. You likely caught it after an infected person sneezed or coughed around you, or after you touched a surface they’d touched.

Every year, between 9 and 41 million Americans get the flu. As a virus, it develops over time and because our bodies don’t always have the right antibodies to fight it off, it comes back each year, especially during winter when we spend more time indoors.

Women are much more likely to look after sick children during this time as well, which means they may be exposed to viruses like the flu more often than men.

Plus, a recent small study suggested women and men have different immune responses to the flu virus, which could be the reason why some women and some men get different symptoms.

But it’s not a given that you’ll get the flu every winter. Read more about it, including

self-care tips
for getting rid of it, and how you can try to
avoid catching it
in the first place.

Winter depression

Do you struggle to socialize when it gets colder and darker? Have you noticed you’re feeling very sad, low in energy and can’t concentrate? Maybe you’re eating and sleeping more, too.

If so, you might have winter depression, the winter version of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Some people may get

summer depression
from late spring to early summer, but it's much less common.

The ‘winter blues’ is a common, milder version which means you may feel more tired, and notice your mood is lower, but not enough to interfere with your everyday activities. Winter depression is different – it’s a type of depression that affects your daily life, including how you think and feel.

Around 3 in 100 Americans have SAD, but more women than men are affected, although scientists don’t know why.

One theory is that SAD is caused by a lack of sunlight – some studies have found that if you live further from the equator, you’re more likely to have it because of less constant and bright sunshine throughout winter. But other studies haven’t found a difference – and some people get SAD in the summer too.

“There are lots of possible triggers for depression, from bereavement to money worries, and SAD is no different. This year, the cost of living crisis may have a real impact on people’s mental health. If you think you have winter depression and it’s stopping you living your life to the full, try some of these

self-care tips
to help you cope, or see a doctor,” says Dr Adiele.

Read more about

what SAD feels like, who’s more likely to get it and the symptoms to look out for
.

Arthritis and cold weather

Do you get hip pain, knee pain, back pain or pain in your hands that feels like stiffness or swelling in your joints? And does it tend to get worse at certain times of the year?

If the answer is yes, you could have

arthritis
, and the chances are you’ve noticed a link between the condition and cold or damp air.

1 in 4 Americans has arthritis, with 23.5% of women affected versus 18.1% of men.

Osteoarthritis
is the most common type, which is also more common in women, especially those over the age of 50.

It’s thought the cold weather in winter can make you more sensitive to pain and slow your blood circulation, while a drop in pressure in the atmosphere when it rains (which happens more often during fall and winter) might cause your muscles and tendons to expand and put more stress on your joints.

If you have arthritis, all of this means you may notice your symptoms getting worse when the weather turns.

Self-care tips for arthritis in cold weather

The good news: there are things you can do to reduce aches and pains at winter time.

Stay warm

  • keep your home warm – keep it at a temperature of at least 64.4°F (18°C). But if the cost of living crisis means you can’t have the heating on for long, try some of the options listed below
  • choose layers – wear lots of thinner, looser layers instead of thicker clothing. These are better at trapping heat
  • try hand warmers or heated gloves – if you get arthritis in your hands, keeping your hands warm is a must. Make sure to wear a hat when you go outside, to avoid losing heat through your head
  • wear thicker socks or 2 pairs of socks – keeping your feet warm keeps your body warm. Wearing thicker socks also provides extra cushioning when you walk, which can be really helpful if you get aches and pains in your feet or legs
  • take a warm bath or shower before bed – it can ease stiff and painful joints. Try hanging your pajamas or dressing gown on the toweling rail as well, ready to slip on as soon as you get out – this works even better if you have a heated towel rail
  • use a hot water bottle or an electric blanket – these can help keep you warm in bed and reduce pains and stiffness, which should help you sleep better
  • consider buying fur-lined slippers, boots and shoes – the lining can trap the heat around your feet and keep you warmer throughout the day
  • pour yourself your favorite hot drink – some hot drinks, including turmeric tea, may have anti-inflammatory effects that can help ease joint pain, including arthritis, as well as keeping you snug during the winter months

Read more about the

different types of arthritis, its triggers and treatments
.

Consider vitamin D

Vitamin D
deficiency is common, especially in winter because your body makes it from sunlight. But there are other ways of getting vitamin D, such as through your food or a supplement. Low levels have been linked with rheumatoid arthritis pain. If you think you might not be getting enough vitamin D, speak to a pharmacist or a doctor for help.

Asthma and cold air

Breathing problems during exercise or everyday activities, coughing, a tight chest and wheezing are all symptoms linked with asthma. It’s caused by inflammation in your airways, from your nose into your lungs.

Asthma is really common – around 25 million Americans have it (that’s 1 in 13 people). Again, it’s a condition women have to deal with more often – 9.8% of adult women are affected, compared to 6.1% of men.

Winter asthma triggers

  • seasonal asthma is a type of asthma that’s brought on by weather changes, including the dry, cold air in winter, which can irritate the inflamed lining in your lungs and make it harder to breathe
  • indoor allergens are another trigger for asthma – in winter, it may be mold spores that settle in your home in damper conditions, or dust mites because your home is not so well ventilated
  • colds, a
    chest infection
    or the flu, all cause more inflammation and mucus in your airways and affect your breathing as well, making your asthma worse

Self-care tips for winter asthma

It’s important to manage your asthma, especially if it’s getting worse when the weather changes. Here’s how to do it.

Protect your lungs from triggers

  • use your preventer inhaler as prescribed – even if you feel well, use your preventer inhaler every day to stop inflammation building up in your airways. This may help reduce your risk of reacting to triggers, such as cold air
  • keep your reliever inhaler with you at all times – if a winter trigger makes your breathing worse, you can use the reliever inhaler to open up your airways and get more breath. But if you need to use your reliever inhaler 3 times a week or more, or your symptoms are affecting your daily life, it can be a sign your asthma isn’t well managed and your airways are reacting to your triggers more than they should be. In this case, talk to your doctor urgently

Reduce the effects of your personal triggers

  • wash your hands often – 75% of people with asthma say their symptoms get worse when they have a
    cold
    or the
    flu
    . Regular handwashing is a good way to reduce your risk of catching one of these bugs
  • get the
    flu vaccine
    – this will reduce your risk of catching the flu in the first place and help prevent serious complications
  • wrap a light scarf loosely around your nose and mouth when you go outside – it can help to warm up the air you breathe in, so it’s less likely to irritate your airways
  • avoid drying clothes inside – letting your clothes dry indoors can increase mold spores in your home – a trigger for asthma symptoms. Use a tumble dryer or dry your clothes outdoors instead (if you can), and make use of extractor fans in your kitchen and bathroom to reduce moisture build-up
  • keep indoor allergens at bay – you spend more of your time at home in the winter, making indoors allergens more of a risk. Try limiting this by using your central heating less, avoiding open fires, keeping your rooms well ventilated by opening windows and avoiding smoking, all of which can help. An air purifier or filter for your home may also be useful

Raynaud’s syndrome

As soon as you step outside into the winter air, your fingers and possibly your toes begin to turn paler. They might even start to go blue-ish in color, and feel numb and very cold. Then, as you try to warm them up, they turn red and start swelling before they throb, tingle and become painful.

These are the symptoms of Raynaud’s phenomenon (also known as Raynaud’s disease or Raynaud’s syndrome) – 3-20% of women have it, often under the age of 30. Scientists aren't clear on its cause yet, but one theory is that in women, Raynaud’s is linked to changing levels of the female hormone estrogen.

  • Raynaud's usually affects your fingers and toes, but you might also notice it on your nose, lips, ears and even your nipples. It’s when the blood vessels in your body shrink down faster than normal, which means less blood is flowing to your extremities. This is what causes color changes and numbness, which can be brought on by colder temperatures
  • some people even get Raynaud’s symptoms just from holding a glass of ice cold water for a few seconds
  • Raynaud’s is also thought to be triggered by emotional stress, whether that’s because you’re feeling overwhelmed or just very excited

Read more about the [causes of Raynaud’s syndrome, self-care tips for managing the condition and the treatments available](yourmd:condition/

Raynaud’s syndrome
.

The common cold

Just like the flu, the dreaded common cold spreads like crazy during the winter months. Partly, it’s because people spend much more time indoors, which allows more bugs to travel from person to person. But it’s also thought that the cold, dry air in winter lowers our immunity, making us more likely to get sick.

You may get a cold after touching the same doorknob, desk, light switch, set of cutlery – you name it – as someone who was infected. Or maybe they coughed, sneezed or breathed on you.

More than 200 viruses can cause colds, which almost always make you feel unwell thanks to:

  • a runny nose
  • a scratchy throat
  • fatigue
  • chills
  • body aches
  • sneezing
  • coughing

A cold is one of the most common illnesses you can get – adults in the US have an average of 2-3 colds per year, but children usually get more because they spend more time around other kids at school and nursery, and haven’t yet built up their immunity to common viruses.

It means adults who have lots of contact with children are more exposed to colds – we’re talking about teachers and parents, and women are 8 times more likely than men to look after sick children.

But there are things you can do to

help your symptoms if you feel one coming
, as well as
self-care tips to follow if you later come down with one
.

Other conditions

And that isn’t all – there are lots of other health conditions where symptoms often get worse in the winter, and where women are most affected.

Some of these include:

  • rosacea
    – around 5.4% of women have rosacea versus 3.9% of men, although men often have it more severely. We don’t know why it affects women more often, but it’s thought hormones play a role. Rosacea is a skin condition that causes inflammation, redness and flushing, usually on your face. It’s triggered by lots of factors, but one study found that 57% of participants noticed their symptoms were made worse by the wind, and 46% said cold weather made it worse. Using richer moisturizers in the winter and wearing hoods to keep the wind off your face can help keep your skin happy
  • migraines
    – 18-25% of women get migraines worldwide. In fact, for every man that gets one, 3 women experience the telltale symptoms: headaches, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound. It’s not clear why but one theory is that migraines are caused by specific waves of brain activity, and women may react more to these. Winter weather can also bring on a migraine because the cold, dry air may lead to dehydration, and harsher weather conditions can lead to a change in atmospheric pressure, both of which act as triggers. Try to keep yourself hydrated in the winter, and keep painkillers on hand in case a migraine strikes
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
    – a group of diseases that cause inflammation in the lungs, leading to breathing problems. In 2018, COPD was the fourth highest cause of death among US women. And now, more women than men are living with it in the US. It’s unclear why, but some experts claim women are often diagnosed later than men, meaning treatment is less effective. It’s also thought that women respond differently to treatments. Like other respiratory illnesses, COPD symptoms can be made worse by cold, dry air in the winter. Try wearing a hood or scarf that covers your nose and mouth when you go outside to warm the air you breathe in, before it reaches your lungs
  • period pain
    – menstrual cramps are something many women have to deal with, but one small study found they might be worse in winter for some women, although the research is limited. If you’ve noticed this pattern, it’s a good idea to keep heat patches or a hot water bottle nearby for pain relief
  • cold sores
    – sometimes triggered by stress and infections, such as colds or the flu (which are more widespread in the winter), cold sores are very common. 48% of people in the US aged 14 to 49 have the herpes simplex 1 virus (HSV-1), and by age 49, nearly 60% of people are infected. They usually cause a tingling, itching and burning feeling around your mouth, before small sores develop on your lip, or inside your mouth. Research suggests women may get more cold sores on average than men. And a small survey by a company that makes a cold sore concealer found that the emotional impact of having a cold sore on women is high – 86% of women in the study said they felt self-conscious, unattractive (77%) and embarrassed (72%) when they had a cold sore, and two thirds of women said “having a cold sore feels like the worst thing in the world.” If you’re prone to cold sores, make sure you get enough rest and limit stress as much as you can (especially in the winter). You’ll also want to make sure you don’t kiss someone with a cold sore

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.