Tackling the Enemy of Cold Weather with Sickle Cell Disease

As winter approaches, I make several adjustments to avoid a crisis

On Sunday, Oct. 29, daylight saving time ended here in the U.K., meaning we set our clocks back one hour. In the week leading up to this, we experienced a sudden drop in temperature. It’s still dark in the morning when I leave home, and now it’s dark again by the time I leave work. To me, all of this signifies that winter is on the horizon.

Winter — or rather the cold weather it brings — is a major trigger of sickle cell crises for me.

In an attempt to minimize the severity and frequency of sickle cell complications I experience in the winter, I make several adjustments to my daily life. In sharing the following tips, I hope to help other sickle cell disease patients remain as well as possible during this season.

Reduce outdoor exposure

I try to reduce my exposure to the cold as much as possible by curbing my social life. My friends know that I’m rarely open to spending time outside during the winter.

I also have an amazing arrangement with my employer in which I’m not required to be in the office during the coldest months of December through February. This compromise means I’m less likely to get sick and need time off from work. If you have the necessary sick leave like I do, you may be able to negotiate a similar arrangement with your employer.

A cautionary note: If you choose to limit your outdoor exposure during this time, remember to stay active indoors as much as you can.

Make smart wardrobe choices

Pull out the thermals! When I must be outdoors, it’s important for me to dress appropriately. I have thermal, long-sleeved shirts, vests, and fur-lined leggings I can wear underneath other layers to help keep me warm. I am well aware that cold weather can aggravate my sickle cell disease, so it’s crucial for me to layer up and make wise wardrobe choices.

Protect my immune system

Infection is another major trigger of sickle cell crises. Unfortunately, illnesses are rife during the winter. What might be a minor cold or flu for most can result in a hospitalization for those of us with sickle cell.

Therefore, it’s important that I do what I can to boost my immune system. I always stay on top of my vaccinations, specifically flu and pneumococcal vaccines.

As Sickle Cell Disease News reported in 2018, “not considering [these vaccines] puts [children with sickle cell] at higher risk of meningococcal and invasive pneumococcal disease because they lack normal spleen function.” Even as an adult, I want to minimize my risk of developing these diseases.

Monitor my diet

During the winter, I also adjust my diet to ensure I’m eating foods that will help boost my immunity, with a focus on increasing my intake of zinc and vitamins C, D, and E. These can be found in beef, broccoli, bell peppers, spinach, lemon, garlic, honey, strawberries, kiwis, eggs, almonds, tomatoes, seeds, nuts, mushrooms, and yogurt.

Some people may prefer to take supplements, but it’s always important to consult your doctor before doing so.

Of course, implementing all these practices doesn’t mean I won’t experience a crisis, but it does minimize my risk. I was recently hospitalized for about a week with a sickle cell crisis, but it was triggered by my menstrual cycle rather than exposure to cold weather.

Making shrewd life choices is crucial to avoiding multiple hospital admissions during the winter. Crises can result in excessive time off of work, reduced income, and missing out on social gatherings and family life — all of which have major ramifications for me.

Do you have any tips for managing sickle cell disease in cold weather?