December 20, 2014
Bundle Up or You'll Catch a Cold!
The simple fact is that cold weather doesn’t give you a cold, but it can make you more susceptible or worsen your symptoms. Allergies do not go away in the winter. Up to 20 percent of people have persistent allergies, often due to more time spent indoors with increased exposure to indoor allergens like pet dander, pesky dust bunnies and mold.
Illness may not always be caused by a virus, but over 200 viruses cause the common cold - including rhinovirus, enterovirus, adenovirus and some strains of influenza. RSV and parainfluenza also play a role in “colds”. We have been exposed to these viruses all of our lives, but bodily responses may vary.
Cold weather causes decreased blood flow in the nose, ears and hands in order to keep the heart and brain protected. This causes dryness and a decreased ability of the nose to filter pathogens like viruses. Warmed, humidified air aids symptoms and resolution of illness and this is also why our immune system raises our core temperature and causes fever. Cold viruses reproduce best at temperatures in the low 90s. Therefore, fever up to 103 degrees F is protective, not harmful. When fever happens and we feel uncomfortable due to warmth, it’s a bad idea to go out without a coat or hat causing the vicious cycle to repeat itself.
Cold temperatures also affect the body in other ways.
The heart. Cold temperatures, high winds and dampness can steal our body heat and decrease our core temperature. Dress in layers and cover your head to prevent hypothermia which can severely strain your cardiovascular system.
If you haven’t exerted yourself all year, shoveling a heavy snowfall will add strain to your heart. Pay attention to significant chest discomfort during or after exertion (and not only in the winter months). Telling the difference between chest pain due to your heart versus muscle/ligament strain or heartburn can be difficult. If you have risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, history of smoking or history of a heart attack, you should seek medical attention if symptoms occur.
The lungs. Cold weather can particularly affect patients with asthma or COPD by triggering inflammation and spasm of the airways.
The head. Changes in barometric pressure and drop in temperature can trigger migraines.
To help combat the negative effects of cold, follow these tips.
- Take frequent breaks when shoveling snow, and don’t eat a heavy meal or drink alcohol beforehand. Use a small shovel or snow blower, if available.
- If you’ve been sweating and start shivering, change your clothes.
- If breathing the cold air causes discomfort, loosely cover your mouth or nose with a handkerchief or scarf.
To protect yourself from the common cold viruses:
- Always practice good hygiene and hand washing – scrub with soap and water for 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, alcohol sanitizers are ok. It’s the 20 seconds of abrasion between the hands that matters, not the solvent.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- There is no vaccine available to fight all the types of viruses that can make you sick, but you can protect yourself from influenza by getting vaccinated. It does not and cannot give you the flu.
- Quit smoking. Nicotine decreases the ability of the tiny hairs in our nose and elsewhere to filter air and clear infection causing colds to stick around longer in smokers.
- Use over the counter symptom relievers; Tylenol for fevers, body aches, decongestants and cough suppressants like dextromethorphan only if age over 6 unless directed by your doctor.
- Using humidifiers and vaporizers is proven to help relieve symptoms and speed up recovery.
- Move away or cover yourself with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, then wash your hands.
- Avoid directly touching faucet handles and door knobs.
Most colds go away on their own without any complications or needing antibiotics. Typically viral infections peak by seven days of symptoms and resolve by 14 days. If either of these is not the case, you should call your doctor.
Dr. LeeAnna Lyne is a family medicine physician at Susquehanna Health Family Medicine at Loyalsock. She earned her medical degree from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed her residency at Williamsport Family Medicine Residency.