Fact or Fiction: Cold Weather Makes You Sick

As cold weather arrives each year, many parents worry that their children may be at a higher risk for becoming ill. Worries are compounded as parents of toddlers and preschoolers struggle to convince children to keep hats, mittens, and jackets on their bodies while they’re outside. In addition, parents of school-age children and teens may fret about children who refuse to wear a coat or insist on wearing shorts in frigid temperatures. Are these concerns warranted? If so, what can parents do?

The Facts

A new study published by researchers at Northeastern University in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has determined that cold weather may, in fact, play a role in how likely you and your child are to succumb to sickness (Thomsen, 2022). However, this tendency may not really be due to exposed heads, arms, or legs. The researchers found that inhaling cool air (<40° Fahrenheit) through the nose in the winter season may impair the nose’s antiviral immune response function (Huang et al., 2022). This impairment makes individuals more susceptible to respiratory viruses such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), influenza, and the common cold. Therefore, ensuring that your child keeps their nose warm may be the battle you must win.

In cold temperatures, the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, which can lead to other serious health problems, such as frostbite and hypothermia. When temperatures fall below 0° Fahrenheit, areas of the body that are prone to frostbite – nose, ears, toes, cheeks, chin, and fingers – should remain covered in warm, dry clothing. Avoid spending time outdoors in temperatures or wind chills below -15° Fahrenheit (American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP], 2022).

Risks of frostbite and hypothermia may be prevented by limiting time spent outdoors in freezing temperatures; however, contracting respiratory illnesses may be more challenging to avoid. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; CDC, 2022), there have been at least 15 million illnesses in the United States during the 2022 cold and flu season. Consider taking the following precautions to lower your family’s chances of contracting respiratory infections this winter.

Ways to Protect Your Family from Illness This Winter

Dress the Part. Wearing layers when outside in cold weather can help prevent physiological conditions that can increase the chance of contracting viruses or more severe illnesses and cold-weather-related conditions. Appropriate outdoor clothing may include wearing layers of light, warm clothing and the following: windproof coats, mittens, hats, scarves, and waterproof boots.

Some children may need extra convincing to wear appropriate cold-weather attire. The Cleveland Clinic offers suggestions for parents of teens. Additional winter-safety tips to keep children warm are available from the AAP. Safety tips include using wearable blankets for infants during sleep time, ensuring children come indoors to “warm-up” during outside winter play, and dressing infants and children in layers rather than thick coats when traveling in vehicles.

Wash Hands Often. Germs are easily spread by handling or using community items (e.g., writing utensils, soap dispensers) and touching high-traffic surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, light switches) and, then, touching one’s eyes, nose, or mouth. To help protect against the spread of germs, individuals should wash their hands regularly by scrubbing their hands for at least 20 seconds using soap and water. Hand sanitizer can be used when soap and water are not available.

Get a Vaccine. According to the CDC, an annual flu vaccine may be the best way to protect against the seasonal flu (CDC, 2022). Receiving vaccinations can help your body repel infections and ease symptoms for those who do get vaccinated but still get sick with the flu. The CDC recommends that most people ages 6 months and older get a flu vaccine annually.

Get Outside. Viruses can spread more easily through dry air. This is due to fewer water molecules being available to interfere with the droplets expelled through a sneeze or cough (Northwestern Medicine, 2022). The air inside homes tends to be dry in the winter because of heating, and this condition can increase one’s likelihood of contracting a virus. Therefore, take the whole family outside, and get fresh air. Time spent outdoors may also help maintain Vitamin D levels, which is important for overall immune system health (Aranow, 2011). When preparing to go outdoors with your child, check wind chill temperatures because these temperatures reflect actual “feels like” temperatures, and dress yourself and your child appropriately.

Wear a Mask. Masks can help prevent respiratory droplets from reaching other people, which is one of the ways germs are spread. A mask or other face covering can also keep the nose warm, which may help the nose to maintain its germ-fighting ability when exposed to cold air.

More enjoyable winter seasons can happen with your child by taking the appropriate steps! You may be able to prevent you and your child from catching and spreading viruses or experiencing more severe cold-weather-related health conditions – remember, keep your noses warm!

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2022, January 13). Cold weather safety for children. Healthy Children.https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-play/Pages/Cold-Weather-Safety.aspx

Aranow C. (2011). Vitamin D and the immune system. Journal of Investigative Medicine, 59(6), 881-886.https://doi.org/10.2310/JIM.0b013e31821b8755

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, December 16). Weekly U.S. influenza surveillance report. FLUView. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/index.htm

Huang, D., Taha, M., Nocera, A., Workman, A., Amiji, M., & Bleier, B. (2022, December 6). Cold exposureimpairs extracellular vesicle swarm–mediated nasal antiviral immunity. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Advance online publication.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2022.09.037

Northwestern Medicine. (2022). Can winter make you sick?. Healthy Tips. https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/can-winter-make-you-sick

Thomsen, I. (2022, December 6). Northeastern researcher finds new way to prevent the common cold (and maybe Covid-19). News@Northeastern. https://news.northeastern.edu/2022/12/06/why-are-colds-more-common-in-winter/

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