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Can Cold Weather Give You a Cold?

by Elisa All

When I was a child, winter weather meant stern warnings from my mother.

“Bundle up, zip your coat, wear a hat and never, ever leave the house with wet hair!” she would chide.

Mom was convinced that low temperatures would do me in. It turns out that she was not alone in her belief that cold weather causes colds. In fact, many parents from her generation told their kids something similar.

“…They did believe you were more susceptible to catching a cold during cold weather if you didn’t dress properly and caught a chill,” says Lauren Sinai, a mother of three in Evanston, Ill. “I think I remember my mom telling me to always wear a hat because 90 percent of one’s body heat is lost from the head if it is not protected.”

While the correct percentage of heat lost from the head is between 30 to 50 percent, depending on which expert source you consult, it is true that wearing a hat can help prevent extreme cold weather problems such as hypothermia.

“I’m sure that my parents told me not to go outside without a coat or I would catch a cold; otherwise, I wouldn’t know the phrase so well!” says Laura Blattner, a mother of three from Beaverton, Ore.

Now that we’re parents, it’s easy to see that the endless harping about dressing for the weather was done out of love. But did the preaching have any lasting effects? On me, no. Confession time: I still leave the house with wet hair (even though I make sure my kids don’t)! But other moms heed their own parents’ advice.

“I don’t believe that cold weather causes colds,” Sinai says. “Viruses cause colds. That said, I think that what my mom said (‘You can catch a cold if you’re chilled’) is still ingrained in me. I do tend to agree with making sure my kids are dressed as warmly as possible (wearing hats, of course!) during cold weather and that their hair is completely dry before we leave the house.”

So what do the experts say? Dr. Jane Siegel, infectious disease specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, says the cold weather itself is not to blame. “If you’re going out in the cold and having close contact with a lot of people who are sneezing and coughing, then it is the contact with sick people that might cause you to contract the flu, but not simply going out in the cold,” Dr. Siegel says.

She notes that a great way to avoid getting a cold or the flu is to avoid tightly packed crowds of people. “The ‘3-foot rule’ is a good rule,” she says. “It’s less likely that you’ll get the flu virus if you stay 3 feet away from people, allowing you to avoid catching germs from coughs and sneezes.”

Blattner says avoiding illness starts in the home. “My greatest line of defense in helping our family to avoid colds is by encouraging good hand-washing,” she says. “As always, if you can keep your body well-rested, fed and exercised, your chances of becoming sick will also be decreased.”

But Sinai notes that, regardless of all the precautions you take, kids will still get colds as part of growing up and developing immunities.

“Colds are going to happen,” Sinai says. “My 6-year-old – who seemed to have a cold all winter her first few years of life – now rarely gets sick, no matter what. But my 3-year-old seems to get a cold every few months, and my 22-month-old seems to catch one, on average, once a month during the fall and winter seasons!”

As for me, I’ve escaped colds and flu so far this season – wet hair and all. What I’m trying to ingrain in my own children is dressing in layers, healthy eating, exercise and daily vitamin supplements. It’ll be interesting to see what they believe prevents colds by the time they’re parents!

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