Surviving winter dryness
I’m always on the alert for new ways to beat winter dryness, something that became a much bigger problem for me when I moved to Colorado. Getting older doesn’t help, either. Creature comfort is very high on my list of priorities and the aggravations and irritations brought on by winter dryness are not welcome.
While I generally don’t like humidity and totally believe “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” in winter, with the heat on all the time, the air in my house gets intolerably dry. And that dry air causes itchy, dry skin; painfully dry, stuffy, bleeding nasal passages and sinuses (making them more vulnerable to opportunistic infections); dry eyes; chapped lips; and annoying static electricity.
Over the course of my life, I’ve gathered my own personal bag of tricks and tips to combat these problems. Some are just common sense and some are … less common.
Add humidity to the air. At the very least, use a small, portable humidifier in a closed bedroom at night to get 6-8 hours of relief out of every 24.
If you own your own home and can afford it, add a whole-house humidifier to your furnace. It will make a world of difference (and you won’t have to keep cleaning and refilling those portables). Just ask my relatives who installed them at my suggestion (I deserve a kick-back from AprilAire). But even with the automatic settings, I find myself occasionally turning it off. When it’s really cold outside, windows will fog up and condensation will drip onto the windowsills. Too much moisture fosters mold and can damage wood sills and window frames.
I’ve also tried little personal facial steamers intended as beauty aids to open pores. They work for sinuses, but you have to sit with your face pressed into them.
Try leaning over a sink full of steaming hot water with a towel over your head to trap the steam. It helps, but it’s awkward to do.
A simmering pot of water on the stove helps if you’re careful to never let it boil dry. Even with the burner turned off, you’ll gain a bit of moisture from evaporation.
My “relaxed” approach: A steaming cup of hot liquid — a favorite drink or even just water heated in the microwave. I get comfy on the couch in front of the TV while holding the cup snugged up under my nose and inhale deeply.
Of course there’s always the long, hot steamy shower, which does wonders for your sinuses (and your psyche), but at the cost of drying your skin. Leave the vent fan off and the bathroom door open if you can; you want to keep that precious humidity inside your home.
Fight dry, itchy skin by slathering on baby oil after you step out of the shower and before toweling off. It will help seal in some of the hydration gained from the shower and after you’ve toweled off, there’s no “oily” feel. To reach the itchy spots on your back, wring out a wet washcloth, saturate it with baby oil, and drag it across your back as you would a towel. Obviously it would be safer to do all this after you’ve stepped out onto a secure, non-slip surface (we old ladies have to be careful about falls). In addition to that, there are numerous body lotions on the market. They come with varying reviews and recommendations about effectiveness, but any are better than nothing.
Use saline sprays (eg, Ayr) and rinses to help cleanse and soothe stuffed nasal passages.
Neti pots are a bit awkward and messy to use, but they can do wonders to loosen dried secretions. (Sorry about the yuck factor.)
There are special nasal/sinus irrigation tips available for Waterpiks. I can no longer find replacements for the tip I liked best, but there are others available. Yes, saline rinses work well. And pulsating saline works even better.
One of the best suggestions I ever got came from my otolaryngologist. There’s a rarely advertised product on the market called Ponaris Nasal Emollient. (NASA has stocked it on space flights.) It’s like oily nose drops with eucalyptus and other aromatics. Because of its oiliness, it provides better, longer-lasting relief than plain saline. I can never find it locally, so I order it online. Don’t be put off by its 1930s packaging. It’s great stuff.
Another tip from a doctor: Rub a small amount (pea-sized dab) of Neosporin or similar antibiotic ointment around the inside of each nostril to help soothe and heal.
If you resort to oral antihistamines or decongestants for relief, read the labels and use only a decongestant, not an antihistamine. Many products are combinations of the two; avoid those. Antihistamines work by drying natural secretions and will, in effect, just put a cork in the nose you are trying to drain and open up. I prefer plain, original Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), which the law now requires pharmacists keep behind the counter because it’s used to make meth. But you don’t need a prescription; just ask for it. It’s perfectly legal to buy normal amounts. I never take it after 5 or 6 pm, however; it keeps me awake at night. It also may increase blood pressure in some individuals.
Avoid decongestant nasal sprays like Afrin (oxymetazoline) unless you’re desperate (eg, trying to get a decent night’s sleep). Occasional use is fine, but constant use can cause a rebound effect that will leave you more stopped up than ever.
Applying Vicks VapoRub on and around your nose at night gives some relief, provided a sleeping partner doesn’t object to the smell.
To avoid or soothe the redness and irritation caused by too much blowing and wiping, make a point of using good quality, soft tissue that contains lotion (eg, Puffs Plus).
We all use lip balms for chapped, cracked lips and have our favorites based on favor, feel, packaging, etc. Just be aware that many of these products contain alcohol in some form, which over time, can actually exacerbate your problem, drying your lips even more. Check the ingredients before you buy.
Dry, irritated, burning eyes literally come between me and the rest of the world and drive me crazy. And once they are dried out, they become even more sensitive to air pollutants, allergens, etc. There are tons of saline eye washes and artificial tears on the market to rinse and lubricate dry, irritated eyes. Some are very watery, for quick but not particularly long-lasting relief. Buy the more viscous types, like gel drops, if you have time for a minute or two of blurred vision. The gels (my favorite is GenTeal Gel) are better still. And there are ointments for use at night (or daytime, if you’re really desperate). Preservative-free drops are available for those with sensitivities or certain allergies.
An ophthalmologist once told me that even when we sleep, our lids may be slightly open, allowing our eyes to dry out; the nighttime ointments help prevent that. Also, make sure air vents in your bedroom do not direct air flow across your face at night. I use one of those magnetic deflectors to redirect the flow so I won’t have close the vent. Also, I often wear a sleep mask and that adds protection.
Immediately after instilling any eye drops, “look at your feet.” I just heard this recently and it’s a great tip. It sounds counterintuitive until you think about it. When your head is up, nature’s beautifully designed drainage system uses the curvature of the eye to direct tears to the corners and out of your eye. If you look down, the curvature directs tears toward the center, keeping them in the eye.
If all else fails, and low humidity and moving air are making you miserable, try a pair of “onion goggles.” They’re a bit like safety goggles with additional coverage that blocks the movement of air around your eyes.
Well, that’s all I can think of for now. And no, I was not compensated for any of the product “plugs” above. However, if any of the manufacturers want to contact me …