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.
Human behavior is more responsible for the transmission of illness than cold weather. 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.
Common Winter Health Concerns
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.
In many places, the humidity drops during the winter; less moisture in the air can lead to dry skin. Don’t use harsh, drying soaps or bathe in water that’s too hot – both can dry your skin. Moisturize your skin by applying a rich lotion after showering. You can also invest in a humidifier for your bedroom.
Flu symptoms and cold symptoms are similar but flu symptoms are more severe and include fever, chills, body aches. If it escalates, the flu can lead to more serious health problems like pneumonia; it can even become life-threatening. It’s important to be especially vigilant since you can catch the flu from up to 6 feet away by droplet transmission. Infected people are usually contagious for a day before symptoms appear and up to 7 days after.
If you get sick, stay home. Stay hydrated, get a lot of rest, and let yourself recuperate, don’t spread it around your workplace. You’re not at your best when you’re sick, and you can greatly hinder productivity even further by getting your coworkers sick.
For many people, wintertime means spending more time indoors… with the mold spores, pet dander, chemical cleaners, and dust mites. When you consider that most homes are sealed up tight and ventilation is lacking, it’s no surprise that allergies can flare up during the winter months.
How to Avoid Getting Sick
Prevention is the best strategy for avoiding winter bugs. The following are tips for protecting yourself and keeping your immune system strong.
Follow a Healthy Diet
Eating poorly can significantly affect your health by changing the composition of your gut microbiome, leaving you open to attack from harmful bacteria. Conversely, consuming lactic acid bacteria naturally found in raw food like fruits and vegetables supports gut health. Probiotics like lactobacilli support normal respiratory health.
Many of the traditional, seasonal comfort foods offer little nutritional value. Studies show that concentrated glucose consumption without antioxidants causes oxidative stress in the blood and puts you in a pro-oxidative state, which compromises your immune defenses. Combat the effect by eating plenty of leafy greens, beans, and citrus.
Exercise and Stay Active
When it’s cold and the days are short, working out might be the last thing you feel like doing, but exercise supports the immune system and may actually prevent you from getting sick. Aerobic exercise helps circulate white blood cells throughout your body so they can find and fight harmful microbes. Exercise lowers stress hormones and combats the seasonal affective disorder.
Manage Your Stress
Stress is inevitable, and occasional stress is actually good for you, but prolonged stress weakens the immune system. One of the many effects of stress is a shrunken, atrophied thymus. The thymus is the small gland in the lymphatic system that makes T-cells, which are highly specialized immune cells that target specific types and strains of microbes, like viruses.
Control your stress levels this winter and mitigate your stressors to support your immune system. Make time for yourself and avoid overcommitting to social engagements. Sometimes it’s difficult to say “no” but rest and recuperation are essential for strong immune defenses.
A lack of sleep affects the immune system and consistent sleep deprivation causes the body to enter a proinflammatory state – in as few as 8 days. Because immune cells are most active during the sleep cycle, a good night’s rest is essential. If you feel you’re coming down with something, get some rest – it strengthens the immune response.
Wash Your Hands
Regular hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent infection. Shared surfaces like handrails, doorknobs, and elevator buttons are a conduit for pathogens. We then infect ourselves when we touch our faces. Most people touch their face an average of 4 times an hour, and they touch shared surfaces about 3 times an hour. Always wash your hands after touching shared surfaces.
Protect Your Skin
Skin can be especially sensitive to extreme temperatures. Bathing and showering in hot water can make dry skin worse, even prone to cracking. Cold, dry air wreaks havoc on skin, too. Moisturize your skin by applying organic skin care lotion immediately after getting out of the shower.
Gargling is a great way to prevent yourself from getting sick. Though it’s great for soothing a sore throat, it turns out that gargling salt water is also an effective way to discourage upper respiratory infections. You can even try gargling green tea. According to one study, gargling with green tea is more effective than plain water at preventing fevers in children.
Exposure to cold weather causes vasoconstriction, which is the constriction of blood vessels in your body. Dress appropriately for the weather and keep the immune defenses in your air passages strong and well supplied with white blood cells.
Keep these tips in mind to keep your immune system strong this winter. Have yourself some happy healthy holidays!