Can the Cold Give You a Cold?

With the winter months closely approaching and the annual Penn State plague finally coming to a close, people are currently hyper aware of avoiding any activity that can possibly lead them to getting sick. There have been many beliefs instilled in us as a society that tell us what we should and shouldn’t do in regards to spreading sickness that has solid scientific backing—coughing into your elbow rather than your hand, not sharing food or drink with someone infected, and keeping the area inhabited by the ill clean as to not increase the sickness duration. But there are other so-called “facts” that many people believe in. Growing up, I would hear parents tell their kids that they needed to put on their winter jackets, hats, and gloves because they would get a cold if they went out into the winter weather, and I want to know if that’s an accurate statement.

To be blunt: the immediate answer is no, you cannot get sick from just cold weather. Winter has been dubbed “the cold season” because of how many more people appear to be sick during that time of year. According to a study done by the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, cold weather appears to stimulate the immune system. Researchers performed an observational study where they examined the immunological responses of subjects and found that acute cold exposure (like going outside without a jacket) actually appears to activate the immune system by increasing the levels of circulating norepinephrine, a hormone that works as a natural decongestant. I am skeptical of this experiment though because other than the conclusion, I can’t find more information regarding whom was being observed, the average duration of exposure time, or what they defined as “cold” in a measurable way. Without this information, it cannot be legitimately proved that the cold has these claimed affects on the immune system. Luckily in this situation, reverse causation isn’t a credible option (it is cold outside because people are producing more norepinephrine).

But this still begs the question of “If the cold doesn’t make us sick, then what does,” because from personal experience I definitely feel like I get sick much more often in the winter compared to any other time of the year. We shouldn’t completely dismiss the thought that cold weather leads to catching a cold since it is so commonplace to say—I believe that there are confounding variables that are being missed in the evaluations.

In a CNN article published this past February, Dr. Sorana Segal-Maurer, chief of the Dr. James J. Rahal Jr. Division of Infectious Disease at New York Hospital Queens, explains that it is what we do during the winter months. When it is cold, people tend to pile indoors where air is constantly being recycled, as well everything that is being breathed into the air. These dry and cold conditions can be higher-risk situations for viruses because of dry mucosa—which coats the back of the throat and sinuses. Viruses invade the mucosa and grow, causing the cold (colds are actually a cocktail of different viruses, which is why there is no definitive way to cure a cold).

So weather isn’t a direct cause to the common cold, but it has the ability to be an indirect cause. I’m am not trying to sway anyone’s opinion because even with research some people still tightly hold on to their previous thinking, but we should all practice routines that limit the spread of germs. So if you’re spending lots of time in the library or commons, make a conscious effort to clean your hands with hand sanitizer and cover your mouth when coughing and sneezing so a sweeping virus doesn’t take over the school…again.

5 thoughts on “Can the Cold Give You a Cold?

  1. Andrea Marie Linn

    I have been dealing with a cold here at Penn State for over a month now and I can’t seem to shake it off. I do think that their are a lot of factors here at school that have increased my vulnerability to get a cold faster. We are open to more bacteria and are surrounded by thousands of students who may be sick and don’t even know it. We have to be very cautious about what we touch and always wash our hands!

  2. Asia Grant Post author


    I share the same concern as you, I never want to go outside when my hair is wet in fear that I will get sick. When I looked into deeper into this thought, I found very similar results to my initial research. In this BBC Article, Scientists had set up experiments under laboratory conditions where they lower the temperatures of volunteers and deliberately expose them to a cold virus. But overall the studies have been inconclusive. Some studies found the chilly group were more likely to succumb to a cold, others found they were not. I found a study conducts to evaluate the acute cooling of the feet and the onset of common cold symptoms

    So there is currently a disparity between being wet and cold and being more susceptible to illness. I would say to err on the side of caution and not go outside with any part of your body being wet.

  3. Asia Grant Post author


    That makes sense since vitamin D is able to help combat an array of diseases, from influenza to even some forms of cancer. Since our vitamin D levels are inherently lower in the winter months, our immune system are functionally weaker than normal–which coupled with close quarters creates the perfect environment for sickness to thrive.

    I did some research for you regarding levels of vitamin D and prevention of influenza among schoolchildren and found this study .

    Thanks for your comment! It gave me the change to further research and find that study, which I am now going to add to my original blog post.

  4. Marni Leigh Silver

    This is a little bit of a tangent but I’m curious to know if going outside with wet hair can also cause one to get sick. This is also a common myth/saying amongst parents to their children, little girls especially, and with the upcoming winter months it would probably be useful to find out whether or not this is an accurate statement as well. Do you think there’s a possible correlation between one’s immune system and having wet hair in cold weather? doesn’t seem to think so but I’m curious to hear what you have to say!

  5. Katherine Jane Ballantyne

    I definitely agree; I feel like even if I am sick in the summer, it’s a lot shorter and I feel less taken over by my cold. One reason we don’t get sick as often in the warmer months might be because of our lack of Vitamin D we get in the winter because the sun isn’t as strong. Another reason for school-aged students could be because in the summer we aren’t at school. Without constant interaction in close quarters like at elementary schools and colleges alike, people might be less likely to get sick.

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