The proliferation of pumpkin spice memes can only mean one thing: Fall’s here again. And while the content of your feed changes like leaves changing colors, don’t forget your health may be in transition too.
The typical health challenges of fall — cold and flu season, allergies, increased chronic pain, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), end-of-year burnout — will be compounded by COVID-19 and the realities of sheltering in place. Add one of the most fraught presidential elections in history, and you have a cocktail of potential stress and anxiety.
So, to get ahead of the surge, we compiled an easy and actionable 11-point plan — complete with shopping lists — for keeping your health in check this fall season.
Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern
For all its warm pops of color, fall can actually be a time for some serious blues. As the days get shorter and the weather gets grayer, mental health becomes a real concern. Fewer daylight hours mean less opportunity for outdoor activities, which this year will include seeing your friends in a COVID-19-safe way, and they can be a catalyst for Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder).
This seasonal disorder typically occurs for people at the same time each year (for most, it happens in the fall and winter, but for some, it comes on in spring or summer).
Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern:
- withdrawal from friends and family
- a lack of concentration
- changes in appetite
Most of us would agree this year has been a dumpster fire inside a dumpster fire. From the pandemic to wildfires, hurricanes, and tornados to the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and daily political upheaval, 2020 has been relentless.
Add all of those things to the general end-of-year ramp up with your job(s), school, or other responsibilities, and you might be downright exhausted by now. So, this year more than ever, it’s important to pay extra attention to your moods and emotions.
Signs of burnout:
- depression and anxiety
Hey you, put down those decorative gourds for a minute, and listen up! Fall officially kicks off flu season. With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, influenza cases could overwhelm an already-swamped healthcare system.
The most effective way to protect against getting the flu is by getting your flu shot. Avoid falling prey to common flu shot myths. And remember, even if you might be young and unworried about what the flu will do to you, getting the shot will decrease the chance of you passing it along to someone with a weaker immune system.
- sore throat
- body aches
The global virus that’s taken over 200,000 lives in the U.S. alone is expected to ramp up this fall and winter as people are forced indoors, where there’s a higher risk of transmission. So, now’s not the time to let your guard down, folks.
If you’re feeling any of the symptoms below, stay home and isolate from others you live with. Seek emergency medical attention by calling 911 or going to the emergency room if you have trouble breathing, feel pressure in your chest, cannot stay awake, or develop bluish lips or skin.
- fever or chills
- shortness of breath
- difficulty breathing
- body aches
- sore throat
- GI symptoms
- loss of taste or smell
The common cold
Another illness that could make you endure a spate of mouth-breathing nights is our old pal the common cold. The common cold is a viral infection, so antibiotics won’t work. For this guy, you’ve just gotta wait it out. But the same hygiene practices you’re using to ward off COVID-19 and the flu will also lessen your chances of a cold creeping up.
Symptoms of the common cold:
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat
- body aches
- low-grade fever
You get a stuffy nose, and suddenly you’re scrounging around for decongestant only to find one left in the blister pack. That’s why it’s a good idea to stock up on supplies now to get you through whatever fall throws at you.
Spring usually gets the bigger bad rap for provoking allergies, but fall — and even Old Man Winter — can also bring on the sneezes and sniffles due to ragweed season (which can linger until the first good frost), mold, and spores from decaying leaves.
Fall indoor and outdoor allergens can be a major trigger for people with asthma. Plus, colder, drier air can constrict airways, especially during outdoor exercise or rushing to the bus stop. Signs of an asthma attack include shortness of breath, wheezing, a feeling of tightness in the chest, and coughing.
A lot of what you may need for optimal health this fall won’t go in your medicine cabinet. For example, sticking to good hygiene — like the controversial practice of peeing in the shower — and regularly cleaning and disinfecting your living space is your go-to defense against germs and allergens.
Here’s a list of things you might want to consider wrangling, depending on your specific needs.
Fall is prime time for Halloween. But it’s not just the horror flicks that can make you feel like jumping out of your skin. Drier and cooler outdoor air combined with heated indoor air can dry skin, leaving it inflamed, itchy, flaky, and even cracked. Extra handwashing and using hand sanitizer can also cause your skin to feel like something you could use to refinish a piece of furniture.
Drier weather during the fall may wreak havoc on your peepers. While more time spent in front of our devices (Hello Zoom) means we blink less, leading to a lack of eyeball lubrication. And antihistamines for allergies and other meds may also dry out eyes.
You might find autumn makes your head feel a bit like a smashed pumpkin. That’s because changing weather and changes in barometric pressure can trigger migraines if you’re prone to them. Plus, apple-cider-scented everything or candles that promise “fall in a jar” might be enough to make your head revolt if you’re sensitive to scents.
A change in your sleep pattern, which can happen in autumn, can also lead to worsening symptoms of migraine or other types of chronic pain. And If you have arthritis, stiffness and aches may flare up in the fall.
Although there’s no scientific consensus on how to strengthen your immune system (besides vaccines), these healthy lifestyle habits may help.
Move your bod
One research review showed that there’s a link between exercise and better immunity. But you don’t have to do 1,000 burpees to reap the benefits. Find a type of movement you love, whether that’s walking the dog, running, cycling, swimming, or doing yoga.
Get your Zzz’s
A lack of sleep can drag down your immune system. But getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours a night can sometimes be tough, especially if you’ve got a busy schedule or battle insomnia. Avoid traps like late-night doomscrolling, and set up a nighttime routine that tells your body when it’s time for beddy-bye.
Eat nutrient-rich foods
You don’t have to completely revamp your diet. But adding in a few favorites from this list of micronutrient-heavy fighters or this list of health-helping herbs can go a long way for your overall health.
If you end up hunkered down with an illness or because of a potential exposure to COVID-19, then having some extra items in your pantry can be a big relief. Food-hoarding isn’t necessary. But it might be worth rounding up a few surplus cans of your favorite shelf-stable soup or broth or any other staples you like to have on hand when you don’t feel well.
Think about the things you typically keep in your freezer too, like frozen veggies to toss in a broth or easy-to-heat meals for when you don’t have the energy to get out of bed, let alone operate the stove.
If you’ve met your health insurance deductible for the year, take advantage of scheduling any doctor’s appointments you’ve been putting off. Getting them in before the end of the year will help you reduce out-of-pocket spending. Many health care providers are offering telehealth appointments to keep you safe during COVID-19.
If you’re due for a routine-care or preventative-screening appointment, message your doctor for their recommendation on what’s the best course of action for you right now.
If you have money left over in a flexible spending account (FSA), use that to cover any remaining healthcare expenses for the year. Typically, you can use your FSA to pay for deductibles and co-pays, prescription medications, OTC meds your doctor prescribes, and some medical equipment. Some plans allow you to roll over unused funds for either a grace period or up to $500 you can use for the whole year.
Apps can help you monitor chronic conditions or alert you to fall weather changes that could impact your health. Here’s a list of apps you might want to download, depending on your needs.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.