Medicine or Malarkey: Can being cold make you sick?
It’s time for a round of Old Wives Tales versus Science!
Can you — as your mother might have warned — get sick just from being cold? Is heading outside in the winter without a jacket and hat enough to make you feel under the weather, or must you actually encounter a virus to become infected?
The answer is a little bit of both.
Point: Viruses cause colds.
Above all else, it’s a fact that people must be exposed to a virus to catch the common cold.
“By definition, a cold is a viral upper respiratory infection, so no virus, no cold,” Dr. Stan Spinner, chief medical officer for Texas Children’s Pediatrics, told The New York Times.
“There are a large number of viruses that can cause the common cold,” he added. “That’s why we catch hundreds and hundreds of them throughout our lifetime.”
Counterpoint: Cold weather offers ideal conditions for viruses to spread.
Still, your likelihood of coming in contact with a virus increases when there are more viruses present in the air — and that is definitely the case in cold winter months. Rhinoviruses replicate best at cooler temperatures, and they are the source of the common cold.
In a funny reversal of conventional wisdom, however, the warmth of heated indoor spaces contributes more to the spread of the common cold than any chill outside. Rhinoviruses live longer indoors, where the air is less humid than it is outside — especially when the heat is turned on. This same lack of humidity tends to dry out our nasal passages, interrupting the flow of mucus that our immune systems use as a first line of defense to “catch” invading viruses.
Add people’s tendency to congregate indoors when it’s cold out, and it’s easy to see how viruses spread through coughs, sneezes and physical contact.
OK, fine — but what’s the ultimate verdict? Can being cold make me sick?
Some studies have found that being cold may weaken the immune system, which makes our bodies more susceptible to viruses.
For example, a 2017 study found that immune cells, when cold, are less effective at fighting off viruses (at least in a lab dish). In 2015, a team of researchers at Yale University announced that, in mice, lower temperatures weaken the airway’s immune defenses.
And, in a (rather amusing to picture) 2005 study, college students who soaked their feet in chilly water for 20 minutes a day were more likely to get sick than students who hadn’t been exposed to the cold.
So, in a nutshell: Germs make you sick — not cold weather itself — but being cold makes it more likely you will succumb to a virus if you encounter one. Also, cold weather provides perfect conditions for viruses to flourish and get passed around.
Our advice: Keep wearing a jacket and hat when it’s cold outdoors, because that’s just (cozy!) common sense. But good, old-fashioned hygiene is still the best way to protect yourself from winter illnesses, as is self-care.
Get enough sleep and try to keep your stress level down — both fatigue and stress are known to dampen your immune system — and stay away from folks who are already sick.
If you do get under the weather, we’re here for you: Our urgent care centers have extended hours, seven days a week.