Can a cold really make you sick?
Kids never seem to want to dress appropriately for any occasion – or at least mine doesn’t. They want to wear pajamas to school, Halloween costumes to bed, and summer clothes when it snows. So we say what we need to say to get them to put on their hats, right? “You’re going to catch a cold!”
But can you really catch a cold from the cold weather? Colds are caused by viruses, so no. But can the cold weather make you more susceptible to those viruses? Well, it’s a little more complicated. But probably still not.
Colds are caused by viruses
Colds are infectious diseases caused by germs – especially viruses. So, no, cold weather alone cannot cause a cold. However, there are several viruses that can cause a cold. “Cold” is just a word we use to describe a group of symptoms that occur with common respiratory viruses: sore throat, runny nose, cough, sneezing. According to the CDCsome of the viruses that cause the common cold include:
- respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
- corona viruses (not counting COVID and SARS, although they are also coronaviruses)
- human parainfluenza virus
- human metapneumoviruses
Because colds are spread from person to person, in order to avoid getting infected The CDC recommends washing your hands, not touching your face with unwashed hands, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick. Wearing a hat when going outside is not on the list of preventive measures.
Why are colds more common in winter?
The idea that a cold can cause a cold may have come 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. The other is that viruses can survive longer outside the body when the weather is cold. Some proponents of the myth “from a cold to a cold” like to emphasize that being the cold can stress your body, and any stress can potentially affect your immune system. While this is true, it is unlikely to be a big factor in whether or not you catch a cold.
What about William Henry Harrison?
That probably all makes sense, but what about William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, the one who served barely a month? As the history books tell us, he wanted to make a big deal about how healthy and hearty he was, so he gave a long inaugural speech standing in a cold hat or coat. He caught a cold as a direct result, it turned into pneumonia and he died. So how is that possible?
First off, it’s worth being suspicious of that story because of how neat it is convenient looks like. The man died because of the consequences of his own pride. Great story. But did he really catch a cold, and was it really because of talking without a hat? According to a review of the evidence in the 2014 edition of the magazine Clinical infectious diseasesthe answer to both questions is probably no.
Harrison definitely didn’t catch a cold after his speech. It wasn’t until three weeks later that he started feeling bad. His symptoms in the first few days were headache, abdominal pain and constipation, along with fever. Later a cough appeared, a few days before he died. So why does everyone think he died of pneumonia? His doctor was confused pThe residents’ collection of symptoms, the authors of the 2014 analysis wrote, still had to provide 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 in response, albeit with obvious reservations. “The disease was not seen as a case of pure pneumonia [he wrote]; but as it was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia gave a succinct and intelligible answer to innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”
But the authors note that pthe resident’s gastrointestinal symptoms were more severe than his respiratory symptoms, and that he likely died of “enteric fever”—or, more simply, a really bad stomach bug (possibly typhus).
Washington, DC had no sewer system at the time, and the White House’s plumbing was suspiciously 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 during of this era (Taylor also died from it). But of course, let’s blame Harrison for not wearing a hat in the cold.