Cold and Flu
Myth Busters: Does Cold Weather Make You Sick?
Seeds of an Old Wives’ Tale
“Cold weather makes you sick.” This statement rates as the number one health myth, one that leads grandmothers to insist that kids sit away from drafts, keep a hat on in cold weather, and avoid going outside with wet hair.
But if this is a myth, why do colds and flu peak in winter in temperate regions of the world? The answers are complex and fascinating.
Click through the slideshow to learn why you get sick in the winter months.
In terms of infectious diseases, germs make you sick, not the cold weather itself. You have to come in contact with rhinoviruses to come down with a cold and influenza virus to contract the flu. The rhinoviruses peak in spring and fall, and flu viruses in winter.
While researchers have not found a connection between being chilled and getting sick, cold air may contribute to conditions that lead to illness.
Cold air forces you into the warm indoors. Some people may point a finger at the dry air associated with central heating for making it easier for cold and flu viruses to gain a toehold, so to speak, in their dried-out nasal passages. Research is divided on this theory. But if you blame central heating and dry air for your ailment, you may be on the right track.
Indoor Humidity and Ventilation
Dry air indoors may not do too much to affect your nasal passages, but it may play a role in permitting aerosol droplets from a sneeze to survive and prosper. Meanwhile good ventilation, according to researchers at Virginia Tech, as well as high indoor relative humidity, may render the influenza A virus inactive. Similarly, researchers at Tianjin University in China found more colds in dorm rooms with poor ventilation.
The Great Outdoors
Dry air outdoors, as measured by absolute humidity, may also be linked to flu outbreaks. According to The National Institutes of Health (NIH), dry winter air allows the flu virus to survive and transmit itself.
Additional NIH research suggests that the flu virus’s coating becomes tougher at temperatures around the freezing point, making it easier to transmit. So if you are wary of becoming sick in the winter, you may be correct that viruses are more active and resilient at this time.
More Clues to Why You’re Sniffling
It’s likely that being outside in cold weather inhibits the ability of mucus and nasal hairs to work disease agents out of your nose. It’s also likely that when you get back inside, in a room with the windows shut and people sniffling, that you are more likely to be exposed to germs. As people return to colleges, schools, work, and day-care centers in the fall, viruses find ideal conditions to hop from one host to another, even before cold weather really sets in.
The Perils of Hypothermia
Hypothermia, which is an emergency that occurs when your body loses too much heat, can result from exposure to cold weather and elements.
Exposure to cold temperatures can cause hikers, the homeless, and the very young and very old to begin to shiver, become confused, and even lose consciousness. If you are in cold weather and become exposed to high wind or rain, become sweat-soaked or submerged in water, you can quickly face a medical emergency. If your body loses too much heat, get warm and get help.
Cold Weather and Asthmatics
If you like to run but have a history of asthma or upper respiratory conditions, cold weather can create problems. Warm up gradually before hitting your full stride outdoors and wear a neck gaiter over your mouth to help warm the air going into your lungs.
Plan your route so you avoid likely triggers for your asthma, such as leaf burning or chimney smoke.
Implications of the Myth
Folks who truly believe cold weather causes infectious sicknesses may not quite understand how germs affect the body. Researchers at the George Washington University found that younger children were more likely to believe that cold weather could cause illness.
This means the children may not understand the best way to prevent getting sick from colds and the flu. Including information on how germs work can help health educators foster effective prevention of colds and flu.
- Ackerman, J. (2010). Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold. New York, N.Y.: Hachette Digital.
- Carroll, A., et al. (2011). Don't Cross Your Eyes...They'll Get Stuck That Way!: And 75 Other Health Myths Debunked. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press.
- Exercising Outdoors in Cold Weather: Tips to Avoid Asthma and Other Respiratory Conditions. (2013). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2015, from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/about-cleveland-clinic/newsroom/media-tips/2013-january.aspx
- Flu Virus Fortified In Colder Weather. (2008). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2013, from http://www.nih.gov/researchmatters/march2008/03102008cold.htm
- Winter Weather Frequently Asked Questions. (2012). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2013, from http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/faq.asp
- Yeager, P. (2010). Weather Whys: Facts, Myths, and Oddities. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Group.
- Dry Air May Spur Flu Outbreaks. (2010). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2013, from http://www.nih.gov/researchmatters/march2010/03082010flu.htm
- Sigelman, C.K. (2012, February). Age and ethnic differences in cold weather and contagion theories of colds and flu. Health Education & Behavior, 39(1), 67-76. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21586668
- Sun, Y., et al. (2011). In China, students in crowded dormitories with a low ventilation rate have more common colds: evidence for airborne transmission. PLOS ONE, 6(11), e 27140. Retrieved Oct. 15, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/221106067
- Yang, W., et al. (2011). Dynamics of airborne influenza A viruses indoors and dependence on humidity. PLOS ONE, 6(6), e21481. Retrieved Oct. 15, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21731764