Does Being Cold Make You Sick?

February 16, 2016

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

You probably have quite a few memories of mom and dad telling you, “Bundle up, it’s chilly outside. You’ll catch a cold!”

A study was released in January suggesting that the old adage might be right, but don’t let your mom say “I told you so” just yet. The study tested mice under relatively cool body temperatures and found that they had a more sluggish immune response and a greater susceptibility to infection. But for a human, cooling the body to that degree is not something that happens in the real world –– unless you were dropped in Lake Michigan in February.

While we still think it is a good idea to put on a hat in the winter, you’re more likely to get sick in the winter for a few reasons:

Lack of Humidity in the Air

Indoor air in the winter is very low in humidity due to heating. Since cold viruses are spread as droplets in the air (which then also land on surfaces) and on hands, they tend to hang in the (dry) indoor air much longer in the wintertime, and are therefore more likely to be inhaled.

So the best cold prevention tactic is to humidify indoor air. A central air system humidifier with a humidistat is best. A room vaporizer is next best.

Closer Quarters

In a one-two punch, colder weather also forces us indoors with the windows closed. The dry air circulates tiny drops of cold viruses. And when one of our coworkers gets sick, we’re in contact with them and those viruses more than we might be in the sunny spring or summer when we could take breaks outside or spend more time in fresh air.

Stay healthy even when you’re bumping elbows with sick friends and family:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water multiple times a day, especially before eating.
  • Keep a humidifier running whenever possible.
  • Try to keep your hands away from your face, where germs can enter your body.
  • Drink lots of water and rest 7 to 9 hours each night to keep your body in prime virus-fighting condition.
  • When there is sunlight, sit near a window or take a quick walk to improve your vitamin D levels.
  • Lastly, stay home if you start to feel weak or sick, as illness is contagious even before you’re bedridden.

Utilizing Telemedicine for a Cold

Calling a doctor when you are sick is always a good idea. He or she will be able to determine if your symptoms indicate a viral or a bacterial infection and will recommend the best course of treatment. In the event your cold is viral––and most are––palliative treatments that alleviate the symptoms can be helpful, but rest and fluids are the best way to get better faster.

Taking antibiotics for viral infections won’t help you feel better. They might have a placebo effect, but you will simply build up antibiotic resistance. You won’t feel better in a few days––and if it does develop into a bacterial infection needing antibiotics, the antibiotics may not work.

However, if your symptoms have lasted more than 10 to 14 days and are getting worse, it could be turning into a bacterial infection. At that point, your telemedicine physician can help you determine if antibiotics are the best choice for you, and then get you the prescription you need.

While it won’t hurt to bundle up in the winter, you can stop telling your own kids that going outside with wet hair is what will make them catch a cold. But you have our support in making careful hand-washing, humid air, and extra sleep a household mandate! You’ll lower the chances of sneezes and sniffles circulating through your house, and your kids will stay healthier this winter.

Originally published Feb 16, 2016 4:21:11 PM.