When the dark and cold weather starts to kick in we usually close the windows and reach for the thermostat to keep our homes cosy and insulated from the harsh wintry wind. But the result can be stuffy, germ-ridden, dry and polluted indoor air, so what do we need to keep in mind when using the central heating through the winter months if we want our families to stay healthy?
The World Health Organisation recommends a minimum temperature of 18°C indoors, and advises that keeping rooms below 16°C increases the risk of respiratory disease, particularly for children. Unfortunately, keeping the heating blasting out and doors and windows shut to keep out the cold can bring health hazards of its own.
A fertile ground for germs
If you let yourself get chilled, your immune system can shut down as your body diverts energy to the immediate concern of keeping you warm. But no matter how cold and wet you are, you can still only catch a cold or other winter virus from coming in contact with the virus itself.
In wintery conditions we spend far more of our time indoors where central heating, air-conditioning and closed windows all provide a nice cosy environment for germs to breed. And spending more time cooped up together means that viruses spread more quickly from one person to another.
Overly dry air
Indoor heating dries out the air in the home, which can have several health implications. First of all, it interferes with the functioning of the mucous membranes of your nose, making you more susceptible to colds and other viruses. Secondly, very dry air can aggravate some respiratory conditions and illnesses, such as asthma, allergies and croup. In fact, some cold or flu-like symptoms may actually be a reaction to dust, fungi and other pollutants that have collected in the stale and dry indoor air. If the air in your home is too dry you will probably notice that you have dry skin and hands, and you may have itching and irritation.
Poor air quality
Too little ventilation in the home also leads to poor air quality as everyday pollutants build up and the oxygen levels decrease. There are many potential pollutants and irritants in most homes: Fireplaces, cabinets, counter surfaces, carpet, curtains, cleaning products and all kinds of materials and surfaces release chemicals into the air over time. You can smell some forms of pollution, even if you don’t know exactly what it is, which often is a prompt to throw open the windows for a while and let in fresh air. But there are many pollutants that you can’t smell.
The most dangerous of these is the gas carbon monoxide – the most hazardous substance you’re likely to come into contact with on a daily basis. Even low levels of exposure can have an effect on your general health. The fact that you can’t see, smell or taste the gas makes it particularly dangerous. Because one of the most common sources of the gas is the incomplete burning of fuels (such as oil, gas, wood and coal) often caused by faulty, unmaintained or badly fitted heating appliances, carbon monoxide poisoning is more common in winter when people have their heating on for longer periods of time and keep their windows shut so any gas produced can’t escape.
What you can do
• Keep up humidity levels – If heating your home has dried out the air there are several ways you can put back the moisture, and one of the easiest is to dry clothes indoors. You can also stand small bowls of water on your radiators or leave a damp towel to dry on your radiator. If you have a severe problem with air dryness, or your child is suffering from a related condition, like croup, then you might want to consider investing in an air humidifier.
Dry, heated indoor air is also dehydrating, so it’s important that you continue to drink plenty of fluids even if you don’t feel thirsty.
•Air the house – Open up a few windows whenever the weather permits to get fresh air in the house and flush out all those nasty pollutants and germs.
•Say no to smoke – If you’re a smoker then in winter time when the air is more static it’s even more important than ever not so smoke in the house. If you have visitors who are smokers don’t feel embarrassed to tell them that you have a smoke-free house, even if you’re a smoker yourself.
•Protect against carbon monoxide poisoning – Make sure that all your fuel appliances are properly installed and regularly maintained and get a carbon monoxide detector (not the same as a smoke alarm).
•Check your cleaning products – Many home cleaning products are packed with irritants and air pollutants, despite, or often because of, all those clean smells. Think about switching to milder cleaners or cleaners based on natural substances, but remember that even natural cleaners need to be kept well out of the reach of children.
•Pass on the household perfumes – Chemical air fresheners, scents and even artificially scented candles can all worsen the air quality of your home. If the air smells stale then try airing out your home instead, and if want to use scents then opt for those from natural essential oils.
•Check the thermostat – Remember that you want to keep your house nice and warm, but not too warm. A good temperature range is between 18 and 21 degrees.
•Introduce a few plants – Household plants bring a double benefit to your indoor air by releasing both moisture and oxygen (during the day). And of course a splash of colour can be a mental pick-me-up against the dreary winter darkness too.
• Hygiene – When you know there are plenty of viruses around it makes sense to wash your hands more often than usual, particularly when you’re in contact with other people or using public transport etc. Don’t just give them a quick rinse, make sure you get germs off them with warm water and soap.
•Stop the spread -If you have a cold or flu then you can help prevent spread of the illness. Step away from other people when you cough or sneeze and don’t forget to cover your mouth and nose.