Whether you love the super hot summer days or enjoy the cool and crisp air of autumn and winter, the weather plays a significant role in your day-to-day life — a fact that rings particularly true for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
As one of the more well-known autoimmune conditions, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) impacts multiple areas in the body, resulting in systemic, full-body symptoms. Capable of causing inflammation, stiffness, and pain throughout the body, many people with rheumatoid arthritis experience significant discomfort and potential disability due to their diagnosis.
With “flare-up” cycles of symptoms capable of being brought on by a wide range of potential triggers, those diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis need to pay close attention to how their body feels as their environment shifts from one season to the next.
Unfortunately, reducing exposure to potential triggers is much easier said than done, especially for people who experience RA flare-ups due to seasonal weather fluctuations.
So what can you do to reduce the impact of seasonal change on your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms? Read on to learn helpful tips to make the next seasonal transition less stressful and more enjoyable, no matter your climate!
Before we jump into the connection between the changing seasons and rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups, we first need to understand how RA impacts a person’s healthy tissues and cells.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune and inflammatory condition that impacts the function and shape of a person’s joints. The joints most impacted by RA include the hands, wrists, and knees.¹
Based on recent diagnostic statistics, rheumatoid arthritis is the most commonly diagnosed type of autoimmune arthritis, with over 1.3 million Americans (or approximately 1% of the population) currently living with this disease.²
Like other autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms are caused by a person’s immune cells attacking healthy cells, resulting in significant damage, inflammation, and pain. For patients living with RA, their immune cells begin to attack the synovium — the tissue that surrounds the joints and produces a lubricating fluid that allows for pain-free movement.³
When this occurs, the synovium becomes inflamed, which reduces the amount of space available for the joint to move freely. Over time, this inflammation will result in significant pain and stiffness in the affected joints.
In addition to damaging a person’s joints, RA can also damage other essential organs in the body, like the lungs, heart, and eyes. Because of this, staying on top of potential triggers and reducing the number of flare-ups you may experience is essential for the successful long-term treatment of the disease.¹
Due to the individualized nature of the disease, no two people living with rheumatoid arthritis will present with the same symptoms. Because of this, knowing which symptoms are caused by the disease (and its triggers) is not always as straightforward as healthcare professionals would like it to be.
Because of the wide variety of RA symptoms, it is very common for people to live with symptoms of the disease well before they get diagnosed. Some of the most common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis that you should be aware of include the following:⁴
Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling that lasts for longer than six weeks, often impacting symmetrical joints
Morning stiffness and discomfort
Affected joints feel warm to the touch
Sleep disturbances and mood changes
Numbness and tingling in affected joints
In addition to these more common changes, up to 40% of people with rheumatoid arthritis experience some of the following health issues:⁴ ⁵
Skin —Painful small lumps on the skin called rheumatoid nodules. They commonly appear in bony areas of the body.
Eyes —Increased dryness, inflammation, and pain in the eyes. These symptoms are also sometimes accompanied by increased sensitivity to light.
Mouth — Inflammation, irritation, and increased infection risk of the gums. Some patients also experience dry mouth due to their diagnosis.
Lungs — Inflammation and scarring of lung tissue that can cause shortness of breath. Over time, this damage can result in irreversible lung damage and the development of severe lung disease.
Vascular system — Inflammation and irritation of the body’s arteries, veins, and capillaries that can lead to neurological damage.
Blood — The development of anemia is caused by decreased red blood cells.
Heart — Chronic inflammation of the cardiac muscle leading to an increased risk of serious medical events like stroke, cardiac arrest, and heart failure.
Depending on the person, a flare-up (or period of worsening symptoms) can come from exposure to a specific trigger or event. Because a malfunction of the immune system causes rheumatoid arthritis, events that cause stress within the body (either physically or mentally) can be identified as triggers and ideally should be avoided.
Examples of some of the most common triggers for rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups include:⁶
Overexertion during periods of exercise
Workplace or personal stress
Infections or other medical conditions
Poor sleep quality
Changes in weather patterns
As we can see, the weather and our surrounding environment can potentially trigger worsening rheumatoid arthritis symptoms — but why is that?
Unfortunately, the short answer is we don’t currently know. We do know from anecdotal evidence from patients that weather does have some impact on the disease severity. With plenty of research being conducted to understand the connection better, here are some of the potential reasonings behind why weather changes can cause rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups:
In a small 2020 study, it was found that participants were more likely to experience symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis during the summer and winter months when temperatures are more likely to be extremely hot or extremely cold.⁷
A 2013 study found that colder temperatures (below 50°F or 10°C) increased the chances of patients requiring emergency room care for rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. From this study, participants aged 50–65 with RA were the most affected by colder temperatures.⁸
A 2017 study in Sweden found that there may be a connection between working in cold environments and an increased risk of developing RA. This study could further support the relationship between cold weather and worsening RA symptoms.⁹
Some evidence shows that people living with RA are at an increased risk of fatigue during the cold winter months. A 2016 study of patients aged 20–65 living with RA found that participants reported the most significant amounts of fatigue during the winter season.¹⁰
Recent research has indicated that many people living with RA have lower than average levels of vitamin D, a fact that may be contributing to worsening symptoms during times of less sunlight. A 2015 study found that of the selected participants with RA, 54.6% had low vitamin D levels, and 8.5% had true diagnosed vitamin D deficiencies.¹¹
On the flip side, there is some evidence that particular climates and weather patterns may help reduce your risk of RA flare-ups. While these recommendations are not 100% guaranteed for every person with the disease, living in a dryer climate (one with minimal humidity) may help reduce symptoms.
That being said, every patient with RA is different. Because of this, a lot of treatment and trigger management comes down to the individual level — finding out what works best for you and your body.
While this can feel like a daunting task, we have some helpful suggestions for what you can do to manage your RA symptoms and triggers better.
With all this information in mind, what can you do to reduce your risk of experiencing a rheumatoid arthritis flare-up caused by seasonal changes?
According to the Arthritis Foundation, creating an arthritis prevention plan is incredibly helpful in tackling flare-ups. This plan should contain a detailed list of symptom triggers you have experienced and treatment options that have worked to subdue symptom severity.¹²
Ideally, you should update this guide regularly as you discover and experience new potential trigger events. Following this guide, handling a sudden RA flare-up can feel less stressful, as you have a log of information to use as you work through your symptoms.
For those living with RA that can be triggered by weather changes, there are a few steps you can take to reduce the impact that these inevitable events can cause. Some of our top tips for managing rheumatoid arthritis that is triggered by weather changes include the following:¹³
Protect your skin and joints from the cold with extra layers. Wearing additional layers on your abdomen, legs, hands, feet, and even head can help reduce the amount of cold your joints are subjected to. This, in turn, can reduce your risk of a potential weather-induced flare-up.
Whenever possible, using a heating pad for your joints can help prevent flare-ups. Heating pads can be used for the entire body while sitting in a cooler room or for the hands, feet, and knees if you feel cold.
Low-impact exercise can be incredibly beneficial during the cooler months to keep your joints and body healthy. Participating in low-impact exercise classes like yoga, tai chi, or walking when the weather permits are great ways to prevent RA symptoms.
Our diet plays a significant role in our overall health. By choosing to eat a diet that favors fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats, you may be able to reduce your risk of having a winter RA flare-up.
If you struggle to manage your symptoms during the colder months, ask your primary care provider about taking anti-inflammatory NSAID medications. These medications can act as a last resort during flare-ups caused by cold weather.
If heat triggers your RA symptoms, do your best to avoid high temperatures. Using a fan, taking cold showers, and avoiding direct sunlight can help better regulate your body temperature.
During the hot summer months, do your best not to overdo your exercise. Getting too warm or tired during this time puts you at additional risk of experiencing a flare-up.
Be sure to drink lots of water! During the hotter months, it is very easy to become dehydrated, which puts additional stress on your internal organs. Physiological stress is connected to flare-ups, so drink plenty of water throughout the day.
If you notice that particular summertime activities (swimming, gardening, tanning in the sun, etc.) lead to you experiencing symptoms, make plans to avoid those as best as you can.
To help cool off, avoid thick and bulky clothing and opt for fabrics that allow your skin to breathe. Lightweight cotton and linen are suitable fabrics to wear to reduce overheating during a heat wave.
As we have learned, rheumatoid arthritis is an incredibly individualized disease that impacts every patient differently. Because of this, what may trigger or improve a person’s RA symptoms may not work for another, so finding what works for you depends on your personal experience.
With this in mind, treating RA should not just be left for you to handle alone. If you or someone you love is struggling with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms brought on by the weather or any other trigger, contact your primary care provider for additional support and to begin exploring alternative treatment options that may work for your needs.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Rheumatoid arthritis | National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)
Rheumatoid arthritis: Causes, symptoms, treatments and more | Arthritis Foundation
Understanding rheumatoid arthritis flares | Arthritis Foundation
Tips for managing an arthritis flare | Arthritis Foundation
Influence of seasonal changes on rheumatoid arthritis | VeryWell Health
Claire Bonneau is a medical writer and certified trauma operating room nurse.
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