It’s that time of year again! Social media is flooded with images of pristine, powdery slopes and stunning vistas. But it’s not just the scenery and adrenaline that make skiing such a popular winter pastime. It also counts as cardiovascular exercise, which means it comes with a whole host of benefits –including improved physical health, a mood boost, and better sleep.
But if you’ve booked in for a week on the piste, there are some health risks to consider. As a keen skier myself, I’ve learned from experience. So here I’ll explain how to avoid problems such as sunburn, altitude sickness and the winter vomiting bug (norovirus). I’ll also answer important questions such as ‘Do I need to wear a helmet?’
At high altitude (generally above 2,500m and especially above 3,000m) breathing becomes difficult. This is because you can’t take in as much oxygen as you can at sea level. Symptoms usually develop after 6 to 24 hours, and range from those similar to a bad hangover, to life-threatening problems.
You can avoid altitude sickness by keeping an eye on your altitude and staying at a healthy level. Check the altitude of the slopes you’ll be on before you travel. If you know you’ll be at significant heights for a long time, you should consider following more detailed guidance, which you can find in my last blog.
Hypothermia happens when your body gets too cold and your temperature drops to less than 35°C. Symptoms range from shivering to slurred speech and confusion.
If you’re a skier, you could be affected if you don’t wear the right clothes, or are exposed to the elements for too long. This can be avoided by dressing for the occasion. So it’s the perfect time to dust down your thermals and invest in a proper ski jacket! Make sure you use accessories to cover all of your exposed skin too. The Ski Club of Great Britain have a full packing list, which you may find helpful.
If for whatever reason you become exposed to the elements, you should seek shelter right away and warm up.
When you’re skiing, you’re at increased risk of overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation and getting sunburnt. This is because of the higher altitude, and the sun’s rays being reflected by the snow. Not only can sunburn be unpleasant, but it also puts you at a risk of skin damage, which could cause skin cancer.
Snow, wind and sweat all work against you to make sunscreen less effective. So be extra careful and take the following precautions:
Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or above. Be aware that the sun’s reflection off the snow is strong even on cloudy days.
- Apply sunscreen generously to all of your exposed skin.
- Re-apply every two hours and immediately after heavy sweating.
- Cover up! A helmet will protect your scalp and goggles with large frames will protect not only your eyes but also the sensitive surrounding skin.
- Be mindful of what time you’re in the sun. Consider skiing before 10am and after 4pm to avoid the most intense sunlight.
Unless you’ve been skiing before, this is something you may not think of. Avoid dry, flaky and sore lips by using chapstick. Various types are available; look out for those with SPF (15 or higher) for extra sun protection.
As with any exercise, skiing can cause you to lose water through increased breathing and sweating. When you’re on the slopes, you may forget to replenish these stores ...and unfortunately that 11am latte won’t be enough!
In one informal study of 130 skiers, less than 10% of them said they took on fluids while skiing. Analysis of their urine reflected this, showing that most were extremely dehydrated.
Keep some water in your backpack and stay hydrated as you go. If it’s inconvenient, lots of backpacks now come with built in hydration packs which mean you can drink on the go.
The winter vomiting bug (norovirus)
Norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, is very common and extremely contagious. You can become infected from contaminated food or water, or by touching unclean surfaces, such as door handles and cutlery.
Skiers are at risk because the cold means people spend more time indoors, as well as in close proximity to one another.
A couple of years ago in Switzerland I reached the bottom of a run, felt the familiar nausea, and quickly raced back to my chalet before things progressed! Symptoms of norovirus tend to come on suddenly: nausea, projectile vomiting and watery diarrhoea. Tummy cramps are common and in some cases it can cause fever.
Fortunately, it’s often short-lived, and symptoms usually resolve within a day or two. There’s no specific treatment for norovirus, and antibiotics won’t work because it’s a viral infection.
The main treatment is to keep hydrated and consider over-the-counter medications – such as paracetamol – to relieve symptoms. Wash your hands and disinfect surfaces to avoid passing the bug on to others. Seek medical attention if you become dehydrated. For more information, take a look at Dr Luke James’ blog on the winter vomiting bug.
It’s not always possible to avoid getting the bug, but washing your hands frequently with soap and water will help. Don’t rely on alcohol gels as they don’t kill the virus. If anyone in your party is affected, be aware of how contagious it is and make sure that all contact surfaces are disinfected.
Do I need to wear a helmet?
Yes! I know it may be uncomfortable, can mess your hair up, and may make you look less attractive in photos, but I hope I can persuade you to wear one.
More than 50% of all severe and fatal injuries in snow sports are head injuries. Snow sports helmets, if worn properly, will reduce the impact of a collision and the severity of an injury. Evidence has shown that helmet wearers’ risk of head injury is reduced by between 21 and 46 percent compared with those not wearing a helmet.
Fortunately, the message is catching on and more and more people across European ski resorts are wearing helmets.
Skiing can be one of the most enjoyable and satisfying winter activities. But it’s important to be aware of potential health hazards, and to prepare properly. A rucksack with water, sunscreen, chapstick and a neck warmer will go a long way! Goggles and a helmet are essential. Enjoy your trip!