We’ve all been there: You come in from the snow or cold with the lightest jacket, and someone warns you, “You’ll catch your death!” But how much truth is there in the belief that cold weather can cause illness? Are there aspects of winter that negatively impact our health? And if it does make us sick, can we catch ‘our death?’ What should someone do to stay healthy in peak respiratory illness times, or get back to healthy once they’re sick? Or is the whole thing a bunch of baloney?
Does the Cold Weather Actually Cause Illness?
Not exactly. At worst, the cold weather can create ideal situations that help illnesses like cold and flu to spread faster. Viruses that cause illnesses are more common in winter. Rhinovirus, in particular, replicates more efficiently in colder weather. When it’s chilly outside, the temperature in your nose makes it easier for any viruses you have to replicate. Because there are more viruses more, they spread easier when you sneeze, cough, or do anything that causes germs to move from person to person. Also, since we tend to stay in inside enclosed spaces more often when it is cold or rainy, person to person transmission is more likely.
Cold weather can also indirectly lower your immune system. Less time outside plus less sun in wintertime means our bodies don’t produce as much vitamin D, which is essential to a strong immune system. Cold weather also affects the way blood moves in our bodies, making our immune response slower than normal. While none of these things help in cold and flu season, the cold weather doesn’t directly cause illness.
Other winter-related factors that can affect health
There are other ways that winter can negatively influence your health:
Seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a kind of depression triggered by the lack of sunlight or longer nights. SAD can make you feel sleepy, your limbs feel leaden, and an increased appetite. You might also feel depressed, hopeless, and withdraw from social interaction. SAD can be combated with medication and UV lights. Exercise can also be helpful.
Winter weather can have a drying effect on skin, so keep your skin moisturized. Use a humidifier in your home to help out with dryness. Your skin is susceptible to sun damage in the winter as well, so don’t skip the sunscreen. Dryness doesn’t just affect your skin — your eyes can also dry out due to winter. Eyedrops can help with dry eyes.
Winter storms can cause big barometric changes, which can trigger headaches and migraines. Migraines can be tricky to treat yourself, so if you experience an increase in head pain it is probably time for a trip to the doctor.
Change in appetite
Winter weather can inspire a change in appetite. It might be tempting to eat hearty comfort foods, but a big change in diet can lead to health declines. If you normally eat a balanced diet and suddenly binge on carbs and starch-laden foods, you’ll feel sluggish and tired. It’s important to keep up a normal healthy daily diet and exercise routine. Don’t hibernate.
Indoor health hazards
Winter affects your home and this can lead to health issues as well. Improper venting in your home, such as the fireplace, can lead to a buildup of carbon monoxide. It’s important for your ventilation, especially in the fireplace, to be appropriate and routinely maintained. Likewise, leaky pipes and hot water heaters can lead to mold and mildew, which can have an adverse effect on your health. Icy weather can cause pipes to crack or burst, which leads to water pooling and causing mold or mildew. Make sure warm air can reach your pipes, and if there’s a chance of freezing keep the taps dripping.
The best thing you can do to ward off illness during cold and flu season is to practice healthy habits:
- Sleep helps your body recharge and stay strong. Sleep deprivation puts stress on your heart and lowers your body’s ability to fight off illness. Aim for a minimum of 6-8 hours a night. Practice good sleep hygiene, like keeping your bedroom dark and quiet with minimal or no distraction, and sleeping on a consistent schedule.
- Eat well. It’s tempting to stuff yourself with comfort food or the wealth of desserts available during the holiday season, but good foods like chicken, garlic, and anything with vitamin C can keep illness at bay.
- Exercise moderately. Keeping your body in motion and your energy up can help you keep from getting sick. And if you do get sick, it helps you recover faster. Aim for at least 20-30 minutes a day.
- Get a flu shot. The flu virus changes every year, so it’s important to get an annual shot. You can usually get them at your doctor’s office, or local pharmacy. Some workplaces even have medical professionals come in to give out flu shots.
- Wash your hands. You should wash your hands after handling raw food or using the restroom, but washing your hands after being out and about can help cut down on the spread of germs. It can reduce your risk of catching a respiratory illness by as much as 21%. That’s a lot! Make sure to use warm, soapy water and wash thoroughly.
- Spend more time at home. There are a lot of germs out there!
If You Do Get Sick
You did your best, but you still got sick. So what now?
- Rest when you can. Rest helps you get better faster. Try to stay home from work or school to keep from spreading your illness even further. Your coworkers will appreciate it.
- Stay hydrated. Water and juice can help keep your body hydrated, while soda can make things worse. Warm liquids, like tea or soup, can help fight congestion.
- Use a humidifier. Humidifiers can help loosen mucus.
- Take medicine. Over-the-counter cold and flu medication can help lessen symptoms, which will help you make it through.