Can the cold really give you a cold?

Can the cold really give you a cold?

Image for article titled No Mom, Cold Weather Won't Make You Sick

Photo: Olesia Bilkei (Shutterstock)

Kids never seem to want to dress appropriately for any occasion, or at least mine don’t. They want to wear pajamas to school, Halloween costumes to bed, and summer clothes when it snows. So we say what we have to say to get them to put their hats on, right? “You’re going to freeze to death!”

But can you really catch a cold in cold weather? Colds are caused by viruses, so no. But can the cold make you more sensitive to these viruses? Well, that’s a bit more complicated. But probably still not.

Colds are caused by viruses

Colds are infectious diseases caused by germs, especially viruses. So, no, the cold alone cannot cause a cold. However, several viruses can cause a cold. A “cold” is just a word we use to describe a group of symptoms that occur with common respiratory viruses: sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing. According to the CDCsome of the viruses that cause the common cold include:

  • rhinovirus
  • adenovirus
  • respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • coronaviruses (not including COVID and SARS, even though they are also coronaviruses)
  • human parainfluenza virus
  • human metapneumoviruses

Because colds are passed from person to person, to avoid catching one the CDC recommends washing your hands, not touching your face with unwashed hands, and avoiding close contact with sick people. Putting on a hat when you go out is not on the list of preventative measures.

Why are colds more common in winter?

The idea that colds can cause a cold may have arisen from the observation that colds are more common in winter. But many things are different in winter than in summer that affect the spread of respiratory viruses.

For one, we tend to stay inside when it’s cold out, and this puts us into closer contact with others. Cold viruses spread more easily this way—just like COVID does.

Another factor is that cold air carries less moisture than warm air. That means the mucous membranes inside our noses can dry out more easily, whether we’re in the cold weather outside or in dry warm air indoors. (That warm air is often just the cold, dry air from outside, warmed up.) Those membranes are part of our defenses against viruses, so the dry air may make us more susceptible to colds.

There are even more hypotheses why respiratory viruses, including colds and flu, are more common in winter. One is that we get less sunlight and therefore less vitamin D. Another is that viruses can survive longer outside the body when it’s cold. Some proponents of the “cold that makes you catch a cold” myth like to point out that being the cold can stress your body, and any stress can potentially affect your immune system. While this is true, it seems unlikely to be a major factor in whether or not you catch a cold.

And William Henry Harrison?

This all probably makes sense, but what about William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, the one who served for barely a month? As the history books tell us, he wanted to make a big deal out of his health and good humor, so he gave a long inaugural speech while standing in the cold without a hat or coat. He caught a cold as a direct result of this, it turned into pneumonia and he died. So how is this possible?

First of all, it’s worth being wary of this story because of how neat it is and practice it seems. The man died because of the consequences of his own pride. Big story. But did he really catch a cold, and was it really because of the hatless speech? According to a review of the evidence in a 2014 issue of the journal Clinical infectious diseasesthe answer to both questions is probably no.

Harrison certainly didn’t catch a cold after his speech. He didn’t start feeling bad until three weeks later. Her symptoms during the first few days were headache, abdominal pain and constipation, as well as fever. A cough appeared later, a few days before his death. So why does everyone think he died of pneumonia? His doctor was puzzled by the pThe resident’s collection of symptoms, the authors of the 2014 analysis wrote, but had to give an answer that would make sense to the public:

In response to intense pressure from a stunned public to provide an explanation for the loss of their newly elected leader, he gave them pneumonia as an answer, but with obvious reservations. “The disease was not considered a case of pure pneumonia [he wrote]; but since it was the most palpable condition, the term pneumonia offered a succinct and intelligible answer to countless questions about the nature of the attack.

But the authors note that the pthe resident’s gastrointestinal symptoms were more severe than his respiratory symptoms, and that he probably died of “enteric fever” or, to put it more simply, a very bad stomach bug (possibly typhoid).

Washington, D.C. had no sewer system at the time, and the White House water supply was oddly close to one of the city’s human waste dumps. The authors point out that Presidents James Polk and Zachary Taylor also had episodes of severe gastrointestinal illness while living in the White House for that time (Taylor also died of it). But, of course, blame Harrison for not wearing a hat in the cold.

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