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10 Tips to Help You Survive Winter With a Chronic Illness

Winter can be tough for everyone. The light fades quicker, the weather gets worse and the cold restricts what you can do. When you have a chronic illness winter isn’t just tough, it can be miserable. Most conditions are affected by the weather, and bad weather can stop someone who uses a wheelchair or other mobility aid from going out to do the most simple of tasks. With complex regional pain syndrome and fibromyalgia I always find that pressure changes and colder weather increase my pain, making winter particularly uncomfortable for me. However, there are a few things that help me that I would like to share with you:

1. Layers.

Wearing several layers is great, but can sometimes be tricky with a chronic illness. It can be difficult for some people to get several layers of clothing on and off and can also be awkward with certain clothing if you are in a wheelchair or are reliant on TPN. But if you can wear lots of layers, do. As an athlete, I often used to wear thermal base layers under my t-shirt during training in the winter, but now I just wear them in the winter to keep me warm and cozy. I know many people who also wear thermal leggings and thermal socks, but due to my conditions, I am unable to do so.

2. Instant hand warmers/heat packs.

As a manual wheelchair user, cold, wet weather is particularly unpleasant. It is easy to get cold very quickly and without even realizing. To help with this, I always make sure I have some automatic hand warmers with me. These can be used anywhere — hands, feet, legs, back, wherever they are needed. Hand warmers can help to reduce cramping and tension caused by the cold weather.

3. Electric blanket.

I have complex regional pain syndrome; this results in my legs and feet all being different temperatures. To help keep my legs roughly the same temperature and stop them from cramping, I use my favorite piece of “winter kit” — my electric blanket! This is a very soft blanket which I can use simply as a blanket or to try and ease the pain in my legs by keeping them both at the same temperature. The warm feeling on an ice-cold limb as the result of CRPS can provide a huge relief to people. My other favorite use for my electric blanket is putting it on my bed 20 minutes before I plan on going to sleep, so I have a nice cozy and warm bed to get into!

4. Bedding/PJs.

Many people with chronic illnesses spend a lot of time in bed, so staying warm and comfortable is important! During the winter I suggest most people switch to a thick winter duvet and wear long PJs, however, not everyone can do that. Due to my complex regional pain syndrome, I have hypersensitive legs, meaning I can’t wear trousers or have the weight of a heavy duvet on them! For this reason, I use a brushed cotton bed sheet which is nice and soft and warm, a bed cage to keep my summer duvet off my legs and lots of blankets. The reason I use lots of blankets rather than a thick winter duvet is so I can add or get rid of them quickly and easily if I am having issues regulating my body temperature.

5. Get your Vitamin D levels checked.

Everyone has lower Vitamin D levels during the winter due to there being less sunlight but for people with chronic illnesses who are often stuck in bed for several days in a row, it can become an issue. Lack of vitamin D can increase pain, cause muscle weakness, increase fatigue and several studies have proven it can also cause and increase the symptoms of depression. Your doctor can check your vitamin D levels and recommend a supplement if needed.

6. Organize and get extra medication.

Most people with a chronic illness take a large array of medication and it can be confusing to organize it all. During the winter it is vital to ensure you have plenty of your prescription medications available to you, so if the weather goes downhill and your condition worsens, you don’t need to worry about trying to go out. It’s also a good idea to have the number of the pharmacy just in case you have any issues or need to arrange for someone else to pick up your prescription for you.

7. Ask for help.

During the winter months when your condition flares up and you are struggling a lot, don’t be afraid to ask for extra help. Someone doing something as simple as picking up some milk at the local shop can help you conserve energy, and means you can stay inside and stay warm so you don’t increase any symptoms caused by your particular illness.

8. Stay active.

Staying active doesn’t mean doing lots of intense sports, it can be as simple as doing gentle movements such as Yoga or Tai Chi. This can help to stretch and soothe any muscle tension as a result of the cold weather. It is important to talk to your doctor first, and be careful if you do engage in any physical activity, as it can cause overexertion, resulting in excessive pain and fatigue.

9. Ensure you don’t overheat.

This may sound strange since the majority of this article is about keeping warm, but it is important. If possible, try not to go from one extreme to the other, for example in a car with the heater on full to going straight into freezing cold wind. The sudden change in temperature is likely to increase the symptoms/pain from any neuropathic pain condition. Instead, try having the heater in the car set to a lower temperature, so the difference between inside and out isn’t as big.

10. Stay safe.

It can be frustrating and boring being stuck inside for several days in a row, but your safety is more important. If you feel it may be unsafe to go out due to how the cold affects you or because it’s icy and you’re unsteady on your feet, stay in. Listen to your gut instinct when deciding if venturing into the cold is worth the risk.

Getty image by Hasloo.