Each year, as the seasons change and the weather brings new and exciting transformations, such as the leaves changing colors and the weather dipping well below warm temperatures, we begin to also see a slight change in our health. With cooler, chillier temperatures, humans instinctively gather inside where it’s warm. But unfortunately, this means we tend to share spaces with one another a little more, which leads to us catching a cold, the flu or even catching a different airborne virus that’s spreading around.
Thankfully, there are ways to help slow the spread of viruses and illnesses, which means we can help keep people a little more healthy. But why does it seem like the cooler weather always brings a string of illnesses along with it? Is it just a coincidence? Let’s dig deeper into this thought.
What makes us get sick during the winter?
Although it might seem like the cold weather causes illnesses to creep up on us out of nowhere, the weather is not directly responsible for making people sick. Instead, viruses that cause colds may spread more easily in lower temperatures, as well as exposure to cold and dry air can have an impact on the body’s immune system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that millions of people develop the common cold each year, averaging two or three colds per adult. Rhinoviruses, which are responsible for more than half of all colds and cold-like illnesses, can also cause more severe illnesses, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, especially in people who have weakened immune systems.
Another way the cold weather has an effect on illnesses is that some research points to viruses, like the rhinovirus, that seem to replicate more efficiently at temperatures lower than 98.6 degrees, which is the average core body temperature. And, the nasal cavity is roughly 91.4 degrees, which makes it the perfect breeding ground for viruses to thrive.
Other viruses, such as the influenza virus, also survive and spread more easily in the cold and dry air. During a study using guinea pigs, researchers found that the ideal temperature for the influenza virus to spread is roughly 41 degrees.
There are a few other ways the cold weather has an effect on the immune system. According to Medical New Today, those include:
- During the winter months, many people get less vitamin D due to reduced sun exposure; research suggests that vitamin D plays an essential role in maintaining the immune system
- People tend to spend more time indoors during winter months, and viruses spread more when people are close to each other
- A 2015 study found that exposing airways cells taken from mice tow lower temperatures decreased the immune response of the cells against a mouse-adapted rhinovirus
- Breathing in cold and dry air causes the blood vessels in the upper respiratory tract to narrow to conserve heat; this may prevent white blood cells from reaching the mucous membrane, making it harder for the body to fight off germs
So, while the cooler weather might not be directly influencing common colds and other illnesses, it definitely plays a part of how people seem to be more susceptible to getting sick during the winter. Fortunately, there are several ways to fight off cold and flu viruses so that you can try your best to remain healthy during the winter months.
Staying Healthy During the winter
Even though you can still catch a cold in the summertime, it’s a lot more common to become sick during the winter months. Luckily, there are ways to help prevent this by trying to follow a few simple tips and tricks to stay healthy.
Here are a few tips you and your loved ones can try to fight off being sick:
- Social distancing and wearing a mask: As much as we all enjoy big family gatherings and being social, practicing social distance, wearing a mask and maintaining 6 feet between yourself and those that don’t live in your household can help with coming into close contact with someone that is sick.
- Wash your hands: Although washing your hands seems like a simple task you learned as child to maintain good hygiene, it’s true that it can protect you and others from diseases; the CDC recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being out in public, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
- Cleaning off surfaces: Viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 that cause COVID-19, can linger on surfaces, as well as the influenza virus; this is why it’s important to clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces each day.
- Get your flu shot: Every year, it’s important to remember to get your flu shots, especially if you are an expectant mother or new mom, according to professionals.
- Stock up on toothbrushes: Interestingly enough, a lot of bacteria can form in the mouth, as well as hide in your toothbrush; after you have had a cold, the flu, a mouth infection or sore throat, be sure to change your toothbrush to a nice, clean one.
- Stay hydrated: Although you aren’t sweating as much in cold weather you might not feel as thirsty, it’s still good to keep drinking water. Water helps your body keep a normal temperature, lubricate and cushion your joints and get rid of waste.
- Fill up on fiber: Research suggests that the fiber in foods like oats, apples and nuts could reduce inflammation and strengthen the immune system by increasing anti-inflammatory proteins.
- Keep moving: Although you can’t always go outside, you should still try to get up and move; whether you go to the gym, get outside and shovel snow or try an online yoga class, just keep moving.
- Get restful sleep and meditate: Restful sleep is important so that the body can heal; aim to sleep at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night; And, a great way to get good sleep is by practicing meditation before heading to sleep.
It’s also important to note that about 3 percent of Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a malady of mood swings that occurs when light diminishes in the wintertime. It’s important to acknowledge this if you might be experiencing it and try to talk to your doctor about it. Some might suggest taking vitamin D, exercise and light therapy to help. In fact, some lamps and box lights are designed to treat the disorder. However, if you can’t shake the winter blues, try talking to a professional to get treatment.
Another way to help stay healthy and positive during the gloomy winter months is by practicing a little self-care. By practicing self-care and doing things that you enjoy, you can help take better care of yourself mentally. Self-care can come in many different forms, including meditation, dancing, yoga, time with loved ones or expressing gratitude.
Although staying healthy during the coldest months of the year might seem like a daunting task, it might be as simple as just eating good, nutritious food, exercising enough and making sure to wash your hands on a regular basis. So, while it might be easier to just “Netflix and chill'' when the cold weather hits, it’s vital to stay moving and stay healthy.