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Sharp Health News

El Niño may bring more than just rain

Jan. 5, 2016

Health effects of El Nino

Any kind of weather is big news in San Diego, and there’s certainly going to be a lot to talk about as one of the strongest El Niños comes to town, bringing with it heavy winter rains. Flooding, mudslides and sloppy driving might top the list of El Niño-related topics. However, according to experts, health concerns such as an increased risk of illness and depression shouldn’t be ignored.

Here are four ways El Niño can affect your health and what you can do to prevent them:

  • Increases chance for illness. Being inside, away from the rain and closer to those around you — in the mall, at Grandmother’s house, in the office — allows circulating viruses to be more easily shared. Dr. Adam Pacal, an internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, believes the best advice is to get a flu shot each year, wash your hands regularly and take a literal “rain check” on meeting with people who are infected with a virus.

  • Aggravates your nasal passages. El Niño’s predicted heavy rainfall and the lack of sunshine and warmth to dry it can result in mold growth. Small leaks in your roof, windows or doors; clogged rain gutters; and constant forced air heating without proper ventilation add to the problem. Mold can cause nasal stuffiness, coughing and irritation to the eyes, throat and skin. In the worst cases, mold can also lead to serious infections for those with allergies and chronic illness. In addition to mold exposure, Dr. Pacal says that changes in temperature, humidity and pressure can cause nonallergic rhinitis symptoms including runny nose and postnasal drainage.

    Before El Niño hits, do a property walk-through to check for potential leaks and clean out your rain gutters. Make sure the humidity level is low and ventilation is ample throughout your home. Using home remedies such as nasal irrigation, over-the-counter medication including antihistamines and glucocorticoids and prescription medication may help relieve rhinitis symptoms.

  • Affects your mood. While damp gray days aren’t usually a local concern, this El Niño may last long enough for us to forget how wonderful our weather usually is. This can lead to the basic winter blues for some of us, but those suffering with mental health issues may be greatly affected. Do as the Dutch do and practice the art of “hygge” — stay warm and cozy, spend time indoors with friends and family and do things you enjoy. It’s also important to eat well and get regular exercise. Talk to your doctor if you take medication for depression and don’t feel it is effective or need further help.

  • Brings on aches and pains. If you suffer from chronic joint pain, you may swear that you can predict an upcoming rainstorm by an increase in your discomfort. You might be right. Experts believe that a change in the barometric pressure, which is the weight of the atmosphere around us, decreases before it rains, causing our tissues to expand and put pressure on our joints. Talk to your doctor about whether you should increase your pain medication during weather changes and stay warm. Light exercise can also loosen up muscles to avoid stiffness, but you might want to stick to the gym or try an at-home exercise program to avoid dangerous wet surfaces outdoors.

Finally, saying “adios” to El Niño doesn’t signal the end of weather-related health effects. Increased precipitation can lead to the growth of more plant life and pollen and an increase in allergies long after the rain has stopped and our California sun returns.

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