Can Being Cold Really Give You a Cold?

Can Being Cold Really Give You a Cold?

Image for article titled No Mom, Cold Weather Won't Make You Sick

Photo: Olesia Bilkei (Shutterstock)

Kids never seem to want to dress appropriately for any occasion—or at least mine don’t. They want to wear pajamas to school, halloween costumes to bed, and summer clothes when it’s snowing out. So we say what we need to say to get them to put their hats on, right? “You’ll catch your death of cold!”

But can you really catch a cold from cold weather? Colds are caused by viruses, so no. But can cold weather make you more susceptible to those viruses? Well, that’s a little more complicated. But probably still no.

Colds are caused by viruses

Colds are infectious diseases caused by germs—specifically viruses. So, no, chilly weather cannot cause a cold all by itself. There is more than one virus that can cause a cold, though. A “cold” is just a word we use to describe a group of symptoms that occur with common respiratory viruses: sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing. According to the CDC, some of the viruses that cause colds include:

  • rhinoviruses
  • adenoviruses
  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • coronaviruses (not counting COVID and SARS, even though they are also coronaviruses)
  • human parainfluenza viruses
  • human metapneumoviruses
  • Because colds spread from person to person, to avoiding catching one the CDC recommends washing your hands, not touching your face with unwashed hands, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick. Putting a hat on when you go outside is not on the list of preventive measures.

    Why are colds more common in winter?

    The idea that colds can cause a cold may have arisen from the observation that colds are more common in the winter. But a lot of things are different in winter than in summer that affect the spread of respiratory viruses.

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    For one, we tend to stay inside when it’s cold out, and this puts us into closer contact with others. Cold viruses spread more easily this way—just like COVID does.

    Another factor is that cold air carries less moisture than warm air. That means the mucous membranes inside our noses can dry out more easily, whether we’re in the cold weather outside or in dry warm air indoors. (That warm air is often just the cold, dry air from outside, warmed up.) Those membranes are part of our defenses against viruses, so the dry air may make us more susceptible to colds.

    There are still more hypotheses for why respiratory viruses, including colds and flu, are more common in winter. One is that we get less sunlight and thus less vitamin D. Another is that the viruses may survive longer outside the body when the weather is cold. Some proponents of the “cold makes you catch a cold” myth like to point out that being cold can stress your body, and any stress can potentially affect your immune system. While this is true, it seems unlikely to be much of a factor in whether or not you come down with a cold.

    What about William Henry Harrison?

    That probably all makes sense, but what about William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, the one who served for barely a month? As the history books tell us, he wanted to make a big deal about how hale and hearty he was, so he gave a long inauguration speech while standing in the cold sans hat or coat. He caught a cold as a direct result of that, it developed into pneumonia, and he died. So how is that possible?

    First off, it’s worth being suspicious of that story because of how neat and convenient it seems. The man died because of the consequences of his own hubris. Great story. But did he really catch a cold, and was it really because of the hatless speech? According to a reexamination of the evidence in a 2014 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the answer to both questions is probably no.

    Harrison definitely didn’t catch a cold after his speech. He only started feeling unwell three weeks later. His symptoms in the first few days were a headache, abdominal pain, and constipation, along with a fever. A cough appeared later, a few days before he died. So why does everybody think he died of pneumonia? His doctor was puzzled by the president’s collection of symptoms, the authors of the 2014 analysis wrote, yet had to give an answer that would make sense to the public:

    In response to intense pressure from a stunned public to provide an explanation for the loss of their newly elected leader, he gave them pneumonia as his answer, though with obvious reservations. “The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia [he wrote]; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack”

    But the authors note that the president’s gastrointestinal symptoms were more severe than his respiratory ones, and that it’s likely he died of “enteric fever”—or to put that in simpler terms, a really bad stomach bug (possibly typhoid).

    Washington, D.C. did not have a sewer system at the time, and the White House’s water supply was suspiciously close to one of the city’s dumping grounds for human waste. The authors point out that presidents James Polk and Zachary Taylor also had episodes of severe gastrointestinal illness while living in the White House during this era (Taylor also died of it). But, sure, let’s blame Harrison for not wearing a hat in the cold.

       

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