Does being cold help you catch a cold?

Colds spread through viruses, not the weather

December 17, 2010|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI |
  • Many kids have plenty of excuses for not bundling up against the cold, including, "It's not cool to wear a heavy coat."
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"Zip your coat. Put that hat on your head. You're gonna catch a cold."

Rare is the mother who hasn't uttered these words during the rush out the door.

Shirlee Imes, 55, of Hagerstown, certainly has. She is the mother of 11.

If she doesn't stand guard at the door, Imes said, one of her children inevitably tries to sneak out in just a sweatshirt. Excuses abound.

"It's not cool to wear a heavy coat."

"They don't give us enough locker space to put our coat and backpack in."

"I'll miss my bus if I have to go back to my locker to get my coat."

Still, with area temperatures commonly in the 20s in recent days, Imes, like others, insists on outerwear in a righteous effort to her keep kids warm and well. Also like others, she sometimes wonders if it's worth the hassle.

"The funny thing is," she said, "the kid with the sweatshirt is the only one who hasn't gotten sick."

She teaches her children that colds come from germs, then questions herself when they ask why she insists on a coat.

As it turns out, the kids have a point.

Dr. Steven Blash is a family doctor and medical director at Johns Hopkins Community Physicians at Hagerstown. Blash said wearing a coat has no bearing on whether one catches a cold.

"The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system. Infections can't happen by exposure to elements," he said.

Rather, Blash said, viral infections responsible for the common cold primarily are spread through direct person to person contact, and sometimes through shared contaminated objects.

"I'm talking about coughing directly at or near someone. Particles from the cough go from one person to the next, literally through microscopic drops of saliva," he said. "Or when you sneeze, some of that goes up into the air and is transmitted from one person to another."

Those viral particles also remain active for short periods of time — minutes or hours — after they are deposited on items like telephones and computer keyboards.

"The concern is if you shake the hand of a person who has a virus, then you put your hand to your face," Blash said. "Or, for example, if I have a cold and I use the phone. I'm coughing, sneezing, wiping my nose, then my wife picks up the phone and touches where I just deposited the virus."

Some people argue that exposure to cold weather might cause the common cold because it seems colds are more prevalent in the winter. Blash counters that suggestion. People get sick with viruses during every season, he said. But it happens more frequently during winter because they are confined to close quarters.

"One reason people tend to get sick in winter time is because they are indoors, huddled up in close contact, and the virus spreads around more. It sounds like a simplistic things to say, but the conditions are more conducive for a virus to spread from person to person when you are in an indoor environment coughing and sneezing on one another," he said.

Others propose that while exposure to cold weather itself doesn't cause colds, the stress caused to the body by going outdoors without a jacket might. Blash said that is not scientifically proven.

"I'll go outside without a jacket and not worry about getting sick," he said. "No temperature outside, whether your hair is wet or dry, is going to cause a cold. Because there is no transmission of a virus."

But take heart, moms.

While going without a coat does not cause the common cold, there is still plenty of good reason to dress appropriately for the weather. It is common sense and prevents discomfort. From a medical standpoint, it protects against frostbite, a condition in which fluids of the body actually freeze and turn in to ice crystals, causing tissue damage.

Even if a child does not anticipate being out in the cold for a long period of time, accidents and unexpected occurrences do happen.

"If a kid refuses to wear a hat one day, he'll probably be just fine. But if the car breaks down, he doesn't have a jacket, and he needs to sit outside or walk home, that's a different situation," Blash said. "You might be OK for a while if the heater works, but not if you run out of gas. You should be prepared and protected."

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