Germs Have Seasons Too
The common cold is more common in the fall and the spring; and the flu is more common in the winter. That is because the viruses, which cause the common cold—rhinoviruses—peak in the spring and fall months, and influenza viruses peak in the winter. Because the weather during fall and spring is either beginning to get cooler, or has lingering cooler temperatures, we might perceive that we are getting sick because of the colder weather. However, it is those pesky rhinoviruses, enjoying their winter holidays by hitching a ride through your respiratory system, that are giving you grief. On the other hand, the various influenza viruses are at their most robust during the winter months in North America. During this time, it is believed that the coating protecting the virus becomes stronger in the dry cold air of winter, making it more resilient and able to invade the human host. Hence, the flu is a very common winter illness.
Cold Weather Conditions
The environment itself, during cooler months, creates a more welcoming habitat for the flu viruses. Dry air, which is found outside in the cold winter month, and inside in the warm, heated air, creates a perfect medium for an exhaled virus to remain airborne. The droplets become smaller, allowing them to remain suspended in the air longer. Thus, when someone who is infected with one of the flu viruses sneezes, those microscopic viruses remain more available to be inhaled by an unsuspecting victim for a longer period of time.
Additionally, while the cold winter weather does not make you sick, it can cause changes in your body that makes you more susceptible to getting a respiratory infection. For instance, the cold dry air irritates the tissue inside your nose, making it more fragile, and creating a crack in the armor that usually protects you from infection. The cold air also makes the little hairs in your nose, called cilia, less effective in sweeping germs away from you. The tissue in your nose also responds to cold air by making more mucus, causing your nose to drip. Sneezing, and even wiping your nose creates a perfect way for these little germs to be spread.
The cold weather may also create other health problems, especially if you have any chronic illnesses. For instance, people who have asthma tend to react to the cold air with increased wheezing and asthma attacks. When your lungs are already under stress, they are more susceptible to picking up an infection. In fact, some scientists believe that the immune system slows down in cold weather. Viruses create illnesses in our bodies by replicating (multiplying). Our immune system works to block this process. However, studies on mice have shown that the defenses that block replication are not as efficient in cold temperatures. Additionally, cold weather causes more stress in general on our respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Human Behavior in Cold Conditions
It’s not only the germs that adapt to cold weather. Humans have very distinct reactions to cold – we usually avoid it. We spend a lot more time indoors, together, in heated areas. So, at a time when the germs that cause us misery are the most active, we are huddled together inside, with dry heat, often in areas with poor ventilation; sniffling, and sharing our germs with each other. Because more of us are infected during this time, there is more coughing, more sneezing, and generally more opportunity to spread infections. It also happens that fall, winter, and spring are all the seasons when school is in session. So students from kindergarten to college are at a greater risk of developing a contagious illness. Researchers have actually studied college students in dormitories. They are much more likely to get sick in buildings with poor ventilation.
How to Avoid Getting Sick in the Winter
It seems like the odds are stacked against us, giving us a much greater risk of getting sick in the colder months. However, understanding the nature of viral illnesses can give us some gold standards to live by. First, wash your hands frequently. This has repeatedly been shown to be our greatest defense against spreading infections. Also, make sure to cover your cough or sneeze so that others are not exposed to any viruses you may be carrying. It is a good practice to keep your hands away from your face.
As always, you should eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and get adequate amounts of sleep to keep your own defenses tuned up. As far as the environment goes, good ventilation and humidified air in any indoor space you occupy will help keep you healthy during the winter months. And finally, make sure you are up to date on all of your immunizations. This includes the flu vaccine, which is generally available in September, and is recommended for every person annually, beginning at 6 months of age.
If you have any further questions about staying healthy in the colder months, if you have questions about or would like to schedule a flu vaccine, or if you have any other health concerns, please call Patient Care Now Urgent Care at our Fairless Hills location at (267) 202-6433 today. We look forward to meeting all your healthcare needs.