5 myths about winter weather and health

5 Myths about Winter Weather and Health

By , Family Doctor—Virtua Primary Care – Medford Medical Center

It’s a myth that going out in cold weather will make you sick. You can go out with a wet head AND without a jacket—these things have nothing to do with catching a cold. 

Only coming into direct contact with the cold virus get you sick, and this only happens if you infect yourself with someone else’s secretions. This often occurs when you touch them or something they’ve touched and then touch your eyes, nose, or face before you wash your hands.

Yet myths about the common cold—and the effects of cold weather on health—remain as contagious as the virus itself.

Here’s how you can sort out the myths from the facts.

People catch more colds in the winter because of the temperature.

Though there’s medical debate on this, people do catch more colds in wintertime. But, it’s because a lack of humidity dries the mucous membranes lining the nasal passages. This makes it easier for viruses to get in. The weaker your immune system and the stronger the exposure, the more ability the virus has to penetrate and take hold.

You lose heat through your head so you should always wear a hat to keep warm.

As for the old wives’ tale about losing heat through your head, this myth probably dates back to a military experiment conducted in the 1950s. When volunteers dressed in arctic survival suits to spend time in wickedly cold conditions, those without hats reported feeling colder. But the truth is that the face, head, and chest are the most sensitive to temperature changes, and this made volunteers think the cold seeped in through their scalps. However, scientific studies show that when people get exposed to cold with no clothing, they only lose 10% of their body heat through their head. (It’s still a good idea to wear a hat to keep warm!)

You can tell it’s getting cold because your bones ache.

The third myth is so pervasive that I believed it through childhood. 

Sometimes when I’d get prematurely excited about the possibility of a snow day, my father would warn me that because he didn’t ache, school wasn’t being canceled. And, he was always right, unfortunately. 

But instead of the temperature flaring up his arthritis (or NOT, to my disappointment), I blame the phenomenon on changes in barometric pressure. Although the medical community lacks proof, many practitioners believe higher pressure systems, which create rain and snow, push on the tissues that surround joints causing pain.

These myths are no reason to ignore common sense

Despite the lack of correct information about cold weather’s effects on health, some perceptions are true and potentially lethal. Among them: frostbite, which can occur in below-freezing temperatures when your body constricts circulation to the extremities to preserve your core body temperature.

Heed the warnings about frostbite.

The time it takes to develop frostbite depends on many considerations, including the actual temperature, the amount of time exposed, and other risk factors that increase the risk of constricted arteries.

Extremely cold temperatures, inadequate clothing, wet clothes, wind chill, and poor circulation due to medical conditions like diabetes, tight boots, and certain medications, all increase the risk of frostbite. Therefore, frostbite can occur at temperatures below freezing but there’s no exact amount of time or exact temperature to predict exactly when it will occur.

So, stick to your instincts by drying your hair and zipping your coat. You may not prevent a cold but you will likely avoid frostbite and stay warmer in the process!

Who to call when you get sick this winter

Call 888-847-8823 to make an appointment with a Virtua primary care doctor

If you're looking for other ways to stay healthy all year long, sign up for Virtua Health's Good Vibes monthly e-newsletter and choose the topics that matter most to you. 

Updated December 10, 2019

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