The winter months bring plenty of joy and holiday cheer but can also be the time of year when people find themselves getting sick more often. Staying inside causes germs and viruses to spread more easily and immune systems are more prone to catch something when it’s cold outside. But can cold weather make you sick?
As fall turns to winter, it gets colder and the hours of sunlight begin to decrease, lowering everyone’s natural intake of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps you to fight off infections and viruses, and without it, your immune system begins to weaken. Exposure to pure cold, dry air can weaken your immune system and cause germs to spread at a higher rate than during the warmer months of the year.
The lowering temperatures outside aren’t exclusively to blame for the increased risk of sickness during the winter months, but instead set the stage for viruses to spread more easily. We’re more likely to spend more time indoors when it’s cold outside, while viruses are more likely to spread in cold weather, which causes a chain reaction when one person you’ve interacted with shows signs or symptoms of illness.
Catching a cold
The cold is one of the common infections you can pick up during the winter. The cold virus can cause an illness that can last anywhere from seven to 14 days, depending on the severity of the infection. The common cold spreads through droplets entering the mouth, eyes or nose after coming into contact with someone who has symptoms or who has also been exposed to the virus.
Symptoms of the common cold include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy throat
- Congestion (in the chest or nasal passages)
- Minor fever
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Body aches or tension
How do I protect myself against the common cold virus?
Though your immune system is weakened in the winter from the lack of vitamin D, there are still ways to protect yourself and prevent the spread of viruses like the cold:
- Wash your hands. Washing your hands for at least 20 to 30 seconds each time you go to the bathroom or before and after you eat is a great way to protect yourself from germs.
- Avoid touching your face. Germs spread the quickest through the mouth, eyes and nose, so do not touch your face if you can help it. If you need to touch your face, make sure to wash your hands with warm water before you do so.
- Don’t go outside with wet hair. Just like cold weather itself won’t cause you to get sick, wet hair will make you colder and more uncomfortable, causing your body temperature and immune system to suffer.
- Wear layers. Wearing layers as well as hats, scarves and mittens during winter months is a great way to avoid infection.
Flu season peaks December through February, though the flu virus can spread year-round. People are more prone to getting the flu during the coldest months of the year, which is why it is recommended that you receive a yearly flu shot at the beginning of flu season in the fall.
The flu attacks the upper respiratory system, causing you to have more extreme cold symptoms as well as a sore throat, high fever and even vomiting or diarrhea in severe cases. The flu is most common in young children and seniors, as it targets weak immune systems and spreads rapidly. Extreme, untreated cases of the flu may result in death, so it’s highly recommended to seek medical care if your symptoms worsen after their initial onset.
How do I boost my immune system during colder months?
There are a few ways that you can prepare your body to fight a viral infection or influenza, one of which is consuming vitamin D in the form of vitamins or food and beverages such as milk or orange juice. Since you are likely getting less vitamin D from sunlight during the winter, you’ll need to provide your body with the proper nutrients to continue to fight off infections.
Eating more fruits and vegetables, staying hydrated and getting regular exercise during the winter will make your body happier and healthier as well, causing it to be more equipped to fight back against a virus if you’re exposed or infected by it.
The best way to avoid the flu is to get the yearly flu shot, which is altered each year to fight the newest variant of the virus. Most flu shots are available through health care providers or pharmacies, and appointments can be made online to schedule as early as late August and early September.
Lastly, social distancing is a great tool to protect yourself from the spread of germs and illness. Staying away from those who have symptoms or wearing a mask when you have to come in contact with strangers is the best way to prevent the spread of the cold, flu and COVID-19 every day.
Every year, the common cold and flu begin spreading rapidly in the winter months. It seems unavoidable, but there are many ways to keep yourself out of harm’s way by following exposure guidelines, maintaining social distance and getting extra vitamins and nutrients that you’re lacking during the winter. By protecting yourself from viruses, you’re also helping to protect others and reduce the risk of spreading germs that can cause life-threatening viral infections.
Chances are, while cold weather won’t make you sick, you’ll come down with some sort of illness during cold-weather months. Many times these illnesses are treatable at home, but if you or someone in your family is sick with symptoms that get worse after several days or do not go away after two weeks, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or visit an urgent care location near you.