As cold weather arrives, do you notice more people sniffling and sneezing? Let’s look at a common health myth that is appropriate for our fall season: The common cold is caused by being cold. Your mom may have told you, “Put on a sweater or you will catch your death of a cold!” Most folks now realize that the cold is caught from a virus, not from ambient temperature. The cold viruses, or rhinoviruses, are passed through physical contact or proximity to infected people. Infected people can share their germs through coughing and sneezing.
So, science disproves that old myth that temperature creates illness. Those miserable sore throats, runny noses, and headaches are caused by the viruses themselves.
Mom may not have been entirely off base with her association, though! Cold viruses enter the human body through the nose. This is where our snot comes to the rescue, bundling up the viruses into an easily swallowed package that can be dropped into the caustic cauldron of the stomach where acid quickly degrades it. However, when we breathe cold air through our noses, the cooler temperature slows down the movement of the mucus. Since the snot cannot race to your rescue, the virus is more likely to enter the body through the mucus membranes and make you sick.
Also, cold viruses cannot survive high temperatures. Cold weather is the preferred climate for rhinoviruses, and they can flourish in autumn temperatures for a longer time. This improved survival rate increases the probability that a cold virus will be successfully passed from individual to individual.
So this myth is partially true – cold weather can increased your susceptibility to catching a cold from a virus by impairing your natural mucus defenses and boosting the survival rate of the virus.
Margo Burette, PT, DPT