Winter is a busy, festive time of year. It’s also a time when more people tend to get sick. What exactly is it about this time of year that encourages aches and sniffles? “Catching a chill” has long been suspected as a cause of winter ailments and, for just as long, has been dismissed as folklore.
Can You Get Sick from Cold Weather?
It is true that exposure to cold temperatures constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow. Conceivably, this could weaken the immune system since it means fewer protective white blood cells make the rounds. But, cold weather alone will not make you sick. Harmful bacteria and viruses are to blame, although some are easier to catch and spread during cold, dry weather.[2, 3]
Human behavior is more responsible for the transmission of illness than cold weather. Human behavior facilitates the transmission of the common cold and flu. During the winter, we travel en masse and stay indoors, in close contact, with our friends and families. As a result, common winter concerns such as a cold, sore throat, asthma, stiff joints, cold sores, dry skin, and the flu are simply easier to catch.
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Seasonal ailments are many and diverse. Let’s look at a few of the most common and their symptoms and causes.
The common cold affects millions of people. In fact, the average adult will catch it at least two or three times per year. Colds are caused by viral infections, and the most common are human rhinoviruses, or HRVs. They result in upper respiratory infections with symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache, or mild body aches.
A sore throat, par for the course during the winter, is usually an early sign of an upper respiratory infection.
Asthma isn’t a seasonal ailment but asthma can be exacerbated by the cold, especially a sudden drop in temperature (such as when you step outside during the dead of winter). Additionally, an asthma attack, which can cause coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, can be brought on by other conditions, such as a cold or flu.
Norovirus is a contagious gastrointestinal illness that can cause nausea, projectile vomiting, and watery stool. It’s especially troublesome in densely populated buildings like schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and cruise ships. Touching contaminated surfaces (like counters or doorknobs), eating food that’s been handled by an infected person, or even inhaling viral particles can spread the virus.
The relationship between stiff, sore joints and cold weather is a strange one. It seems counterintuitive that cold weather would exacerbate inflammation, but a sudden drop in temperature is usually preceded by a drop in barometric pressure. People with inflamed joints are more attuned to changes in atmospheric pressure and may feel more pain in injured areas. Stiff joints might also hurt more in the winter because people are more sedentary when it’s cold outside.
Cold sores are the result of the highly contagious HSV-1 virus. The virus remains dormant in the body’s nerve cells until activated. Many factors, including stress or a compromised immune system, can trigger an outbreak. To prevent transmission to other people or parts of the body, avoid touching cold sores, don’t share food or utensils, and wash your hands frequently.
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