Why do I get sick when the seasons change?
Most of us enjoy the change of seasons. The coming spring flowers bring a sense of wonder.
But does the change of seasons mean we’re more susceptible to colds, flu or other respiratory problems? The answer is a little complicated, but research shows the answer is a qualified: “Yes.”
What about seasonal allergies?
The change of seasons also means different pollens and other allergens tend to spike. In the spring, there are lots of trees, grasses and weeds dishing out pollens. Later flowers add to the mix and potential misery.
As fall drops in on us, ragweed and moldy leaves are big allergy sources. As windows close for the season, indoor dusts and pet dander may also contribute to allergy discomfort.
As we’ve noted, cooler fall and winter temperatures are conducive to more cold and flu viruses to hang in the air. And allergies can irritate your lungs and nasal passages, leaving you more susceptible to cold or flu viruses — it’s essentially a one-two punch for ending up being sick when the seasons change.
What can you do?
We can’t control the temperatures outdoors, but we can take steps to keep our indoor surroundings comfortable. Consider a humidifier at night to keep your airways moist.
Treating seasonal allergies can help keep mucus in your nasal passages at the right level to do their virus-catching job better. Moist air will be more comfortable if you do catch a cold.
If you have a cough, we have some tips for cough relief.
Can you catch a cold from being chilled?
We can dispel the old myth that being cold can give you a cold. You have to be infected by a virus to catch a cold or the flu.
However, influenza viruses peak in the winter. And the rhinovirus that causes colds peaks in the spring and fall when the temperatures are cooler. Also, being out in the cold appears to limit the ability of your nasal hairs and mucus to catch and stop germs coming into your nose.
What affect does cold weather have on cold and flu?
The National Institutes of Health found that dry winter air allows cold and flu viruses to survive longer and transmit more easily.
The research suggests that the virus’ exterior coating becomes tougher when the temperature is close to freezing. This extra strength helps viruses be more active and resilient. So cold weather is conducive to you crossing paths with these viruses more often.
When it’s cold outside, we tend to spend more time together indoors. The likelihood is that when we’re indoors with others, we’re more likely to be exposed to germs from others who may already have the sniffles.
One research study found that students in dorm rooms with poor ventilation caught more colds. Another study found that good ventilation along with high indoor relative humidity rendered the influenza A virus inactive.
About the Author
Steven J. Heyden, MD is a family medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Whitefish Bay.