Modern Mythology: Baby It’s Cold Outside
September 23 was the first day of autumn and, if you live in the northern hemisphere, that means it’s the beginning of the end of hot summer days. It’s time to pull out the sweaters, hoodies and coats. It’s my favorite time of year.
But as the days start to get colder, I’m reminded of the warning I was always given before I rushed outside to play in the leaves and snow: that I must wear a coat or else I will catch a cold. Since I’m one of those people who catches a cold in the fall and remains sick until the first buds of spring, I took the warning very seriously. Best to delay the snotty, chapped nose as long as possible.
The common cold is, well, very common. There are over 200 types of viruses that can cause a cold, but the most common is the rhinovirus. This is why people keep getting colds over and over: there is a seemingly never-ending supply of viruses. The common cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat, and over a lifetime a human might get 200 colds. That’s a lot of colds.
While people tend to get more colds in the winter, there is not much evidence to suggest that cold weather causes colds. The prevailing theory is that people get more colds in the winter because we’re all huddled inside all the time. This is especially true for kids who are in school during the coldest months of the year. Since a cold is spread by a virus, you can be exposed by being in close contact with other human beings. That is why it’s so important to cover your mouth when you sneeze and wash your hands. Cold viruses can also live on hard surfaces like sinks and doorknobs.
This is the most commonly accepted theory. But in 2005, the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University in Wales published a study involving 90 students who had their feet chilled in water for 20 minutes and compared them to a control group of 90 students whose feet were not chilled. What they found was that 29 percent of the chilled group reported cold symptoms in the next five days, compared with only 10 percent of the control group.
The authors, however, stop short of saying that being cold causes people to catch colds. Rather, the authors proposed that some people carry one of viruses while not manifesting any symptoms, and that chilling the feet caused a constriction of the blood vessels in the nose, which decreases our natural defenses against the virus, thus allowing the virus to replicate and cause cold symptoms. So it may seem like having their feet chilled “caused” the cold, when in fact the virus was in the body to begin with. This finding also plays into a new theory about why people are more likely to get sick in the winter. The new theory posits that our noses are colder in the winter than the summer and that cooling the nose lowers our resistance to infection.
This is only one study. The vast preponderance of the evidence rejects the assertion that cold weather causes colds. My adorable lime green peacoat will not protect me. Just remember that if you get a cold, there’s basically nothing you do about it except try to ease the symptoms a bit. You’ll just have to ride it out.
Featured image credit: _rockinfree