Worried about catching a cold as the temperature is dropping outside? You have a valid concern, but not for the reasons you think. Cold weather does not make you sick. So, you can disregard all those warnings about cold drafts, damp clothes, and coming in from the cold.
In fact you are more likely to catch a cold inside a heated building, than outside in the weather. That’s because it’s the germs that are causing you to get sick in the winter, not the weather itself. The common cold is caused by a number of different viruses, which are more active in the spring and fall; and the flu is caused by various strains of the influenza virus, which are more active in the winter. Understanding the real reasons why we get sicker in the winter can help you dodge a few of those viruses, and stay a little healthier this winter.
What Causes Us to Feel So Miserable?
The common cold is caused by a number of germs, called viruses that are passed from person to person in droplets from their respiratory systems. The culprits are actually hundreds of strains of rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. These viruses are most active in the winter and fall months, and they need human hosts to survive and grow. Since these months are at the beginning and end of our cooler seasons, we have historically associated cold weather with the illnesses these viruses cause. However, the fever, chills, sore throats, coughs, and runny noses we experience when we have a cold are actually a result of our immune systems reacting to these invading organisms. When the virus enters the body’s respiratory system, through our nose or mouth, it then infiltrates our cells and begins to multiply. Our immune system responds by sending an army of cells and chemicals that initiate the inflammatory response, which causes many of the symptoms we associate with a cold or flu.
It is true that cold weather may play a small role in the increase of colds and flus during the colder months. One way our immune system fights viruses is by suppressing their ability to replicate, but some studies have shown that the cold weather may slow this response down. In addition, people who have asthma may be at a higher risk of getting sick because cold air may aggravate the chronic condition, causing more asthma attacks. In this weakened state, lungs may be more susceptible to infection. In fact, chronic conditions in general, such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease, all put us at greater risk of catching colds and flus. Finally, during cold weather, some of our natural defenses in our nose may be weakened. Cold air may cause the tissue inside to become dry and cracked, creating an entry portal for germs, and the tiny hairs (cilia) inside our nose that sweeps germs away may not be as effective in cold weather. That being said, regardless of the weather, infections like colds and flus do not occur without the presence of the infecting germ.
While spring and fall are prime time to catch a cold, winter is flu season. This illness, which will not only make you feel miserable for the better part of a week, can also be very dangerous, especially in the young, old and chronically ill. There are a number of different strains of the virus that can cause the flu, and scientists pay very close attention to which strains will be active each year. With this information, they formulate a new flu vaccine that is generally available every September. The vaccine is an inactive form of the virus, so it cannot make you sick; instead it activates your immune system to create antibodies against the flu so that if you are exposed to the real virus, you will already have some defense against it. Again though, nothing is to do with the weather – it’s all about the germs you are exposed to and your defenses against them.
What is it About the Winter?
The biggest problem with the colder months is not that the temperature is somehow the culprit for all of our winter illnesses. It is that our response or adaptation to cold weather can make us more susceptible to infection. For instance, cold weather may make our noses run a little more, so more nasal secretions (and germs) have the potential to be spread around. Also, as more people who have the cold or flu are out and about, they are more likely to cough or sneeze, sending their germs airborne. Then, who wants to be out in the cold? As soon as that thermostat starts dropping, we start congregating indoors in artificially heated rooms. Now we have a lot of people either with infections, or with runny noses, congregating together in enclosed spaces.
It is also a known fact that the dry air usually pumped out by heaters provides a better medium for the little droplets of moisture that are expelled during a cough or sneeze. to stay suspended in air. They float better in the dry warm air, creating a longer period of exposure for everyone sharing the same space. So basically, we are left with a perfect environment for the spread of cold weather flus and respiratory infections. Top this with the fact that schools are in session fall, winter, and spring, with multiple children, adolescents and young adults congregating frequently, going to class together, and sleeping in dormitories together, during the most active cold and flu season. This basically creates a perfect storm, easily perpetuating the myth that cold weather causes illness.
What Can We Do to Avoid Getting Sick During the Winter?
The best way to stay healthy all year is to take care of you. That means that you should eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise all of the time. You should also get adequate amounts of sleep on a regular basis. Additionally, get the flu shot every year. It is generally available in September and is recommended for everyone 6 months and older, every year.
All of these steps will keep your immune system in top shape, ready to take you through the winter. However, there are also some personal habits and adjustments to your environment that will keep you health. The most important thing that we all can do to decrease contagious illnesses is to wash our hands well, regularly. You should also avoid putting your hands on your face or mouth. Don’t drink after anyone else so you don’t get exposed to their germs, and make sure to cover your face when sneezing or coughing so that you don’t share theirs. Again, wash your hands after the sneeze. If you can, don’t go to school or work when you have a fever or have severe respiratory symptoms. Finally, you can alter the environment by making sure your living and working space has good ventilation and by adding humidity to the environment. Both these measures have been shown to decrease spread of cold and flu.
In the unfortunate event that you get sick, make sure you rest and drink plenty of fluids. Over the counter cold medicines can be used but you should call your doctor if you don’t start to improve in 3 days, or if you have a fever. If it is the flu and within 72 hours from the start of symptoms, there are some treatments your doctor can order you that may shorten the amount of time you are feeling sick.
If you have any more questions about common illnesses during the winter, or if you are not feeling well and would like to be seen, please call Intercoastal Medical Group today at (941) 362-8662 in Lakewood Ranch, or (941) 379-1799 in Sarasota for an appointment with one of our highly qualified, caring physicians. You can also request an appointment online. We look forward to helping you achieve your highest level of wellness.