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.