Does cold weather make you sick? The commonly held belief that getting cold can make you sick has long been dismissed as an old wives’ tale, but is it really? After all, the fall and winter months are the peak season for colds, flu, and other respiratory viruses. There are a few reasons that people are more likely to get sick during those times. Luckily, there are also steps you can take to help protect yourself and your family.
Why Viruses Like the Cold
The viruses that cause respiratory illnesses typically spread via person-to-person contact or through airborne droplets. Researchers have not completely unraveled the reasons that viruses seem to spread more readily during cold months, but they have come up with a few possibilities:
- A 2007 study found that guinea pigs were more likely to transmit the flu to other guinea pigs at temperatures below 68 °F (20 °C).
- Another group of researchers found that the outer coating of the virus that causes influenza A is affected by the temperature. At cooler temperatures, the virus has a thicker skin, which may allow it to survive longer in the air and on surfaces. Once it hits the warmer temperature of, say, the inside of your nose, the outer membrane softens and melts, exposing the infectious nucleus and letting it into your system.
The Role of Humidity
Dry air — both indoors and out — may also play a role in helping infections spread. In 2010, Dr. Jeffrey Shaman of Oregon State University drew correlations between flu outbreak data and weather reports in the affected areas. He found that there were often drops in absolute humidity during the weeks preceding a flu outbreak. He postulated that dryer air might help viruses survive longer.
Many viruses, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, are spread via airborne transmission. Every time you breathe, talk, sing, cough, laugh, or sneeze, you’re expelling moisture droplets into the air. Typically, they consist mostly — about 97% — of water and a few other dissolved substances. However, when someone is infected with a cold or flu, those water droplets also carry infectious microbes. As long as they’re airborne, other people can breathe them in.
When the air is dry, the water surrounding those contagious molecules evaporates more quickly. The result is that the naked virus is lighter, so it hangs in the air longer, increasing the length of time that it may be inhaled by others.
More Time Indoors
When it’s cold outside, people spend more time hanging out together indoors, usually with the windows closed. On top of that, most heating systems dry out the air. That means that people are more likely to be in environments that make it easier for viruses to spread.
Cold Weather and Your Body
In addition to fall and winter weather being more hospitable to respiratory viruses, the cold, dry air can also reduce the efficiency of your immune system in several different ways:
- Your immune system is more sluggish at colder temperatures, according to Yale University researchers. They found that the epithelial cells in the nose produce less interferon, a protein that sparks an immune response when it’s cold.
- Dry air dries out the mucus in your nose, making it less effective at stopping viruses before they make it to your lungs.
- People spend more time indoors, so they get less vitamin D, which is important for proper immune system functioning.
- Most people get less physical activity when it’s cold outside, which also lowers the efficiency of your immune system.
Beyond Respiratory Illnesses
There’s more to your health than your respiratory system, and cold, dry weather can hit your health in other ways, too. For example, it’s rough on your skin, which can be a big problem for people with health conditions like diabetes or immunodeficiencies. And while we typically think of hypothermia as a problem for those caught outside in cold weather, vulnerable seniors, young children, and people who are chronically ill may experience the effects of hypothermia at temperatures lower than 65 °F (18.33 °C) or when the air is too dry.
Tips To Stay Healthy in Cold Weather
You can take steps to protect yourself and your family and support their health during the colder months. Many of the habits that we’ve learned to stay safe and healthy from COVID-19 can also help us avoid the common cold and flu. These tips will help you create and maintain a healthy environment and give your loved ones a little extra boost to help them avoid these common winter illnesses.
- Wash your hands with soap and water regularly to reduce the likelihood of person-to-person transmission. If soap and water aren’t available, use hand sanitizer.
- Wipe down surfaces in your home with a sanitizing cleaner.
- Keep room temperatures at or above 65 °F (18.33 °C).
- Use a humidifier to increase the moisture in the air.
- Get outside to soak up some sunshine and fresh air and get a little physical activity in. Your body will thank you for the vitamin D boost.
- If you’re out in the cold, wear a scarf or mask over your nose. It will help keep the air in your nose at a temperature that discourages viruses from taking hold.
- Use moisturizer to help keep your skin healthy and hydrated.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Stay hydrated.
A Healthy Home Environment with AcuRite
Maintaining a healthy home environment to beat the cold is easier with the right tools. An AcuRite Smart Home Environment System lets you keep your eye on the temperature and humidity in four different zones, even if you’re not at home. A digital indoor temperature and humidity monitor will also give you quick, accurate, at-a-glance readings in a single area.
You can even monitor indoor air quality (IAQ) to help you identify and reduce indoor air pollutants that can make your family sick. Check out even more ways that My AcuRite® and AcuRite Access® help you optimize your home environment for efficiency, comfort, and healthy living.