5 myths about winter weather and health

5 Myths about Winter Weather and Health

“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,” says Virtua family doctor Michelle Festa, MD.

Only coming into direct contact with the virus can 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.

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.

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

Fact
Though there’s medical debate on this, according to Dr. Festa, people do catch more colds in wintertime. But, it’s because the 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, she says, the more ability the virus has to penetrate and take hold.

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

Fact
As for the old wives’ tale about losing heat through your head, Dr. Festa explains this one 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, which 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!)

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

Fact
The third myth is so pervasive that Dr. Festa believed it through childhood: Sometimes when she’d get prematurely excited about the possibility of a snow day, her father would warn her that because he didn’t ache, school wasn’t being canceled.

“He was always right, unfortunately,” she laments.

But instead of the temperature flaring up his arthritis (or NOT, to his daughter’s chagrin), Dr. Festa blames the phenomenon on changes in barometric pressure. Although the medical community lacks proof, she says many practitioners believe higher pressure systems, which create rain and snow, push on the tissues that surround joints causing pain.

However, these myths are no reason to ignore common sense.

Despite a widespread 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 to preserve core body temp by constricting circulation to the extremities.

Fact
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 will increase the risk of frostbite,” Dr. Festa says. “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!

Updated June 6, 2016

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