Medically Approved

Why do I always get sick in the winter?

Woman taking cold medicine

Don’t blame the cold. That’s not the real reason people get sick when the mercury drops.

Colleen Stinchcombe

By Colleen Stinchcombe

As the weather gets chilly, sweaters come out. And for some people, so does the tissue box. Common colds are the main reason children miss school and adults miss work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But what is it about winter that makes colds more likely? 

If you end up needing medication for an illness this winter, use the Optum Perks mobile app to search for discounts on your prescription. But to understand the link between cold weather and illness, keep reading.

Here, we’re speaking with James Cherry, MD, a distinguished professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Dr. Cherry became an expert on cold viruses by spending 16 months at the renowned Common Cold Research Unit in Salisbury, England.

Do people actually get sick more often in the winter?

Dr. Cherry: Overall, yes, but there’s a lot of variability between people. Some don’t get colds at all, and others get a ton of them. The immune response is different for different people.

But in the winter, people are more likely to have a secondary bacterial infection. That is an infection that follows the primary infection, which is usually viral. It occurs when a person’s immune system is already vulnerable. Secondary infections can be worse than the original, and they explain why hospitalizations go up in the winter and spring.

I’ve heard parents say to their kids, “Put on your jacket or you’ll catch a cold.” Can getting wet or cold make you sick? 

Dr. Cherry: Those are old wives’ tales. At the Common Cold Research Unit, volunteers would get possible cold viruses administered into their noses. The researchers tested what would happen if you turned off all the heat or put their feet in water and had a fan blowing. None of that increased the infection rate at all.

So what explains the increase in sickness?

Dr. Cherry: People spend more time indoors, where they tend to be closer. And that makes them more likely to spread viruses. 

Related reading: Here’s how to prepare for cold and flu season.

Does the same virus cause all colds?

Dr. Cherry: No. There are a whole bunch of viruses that can cause colds. Rhinoviruses are the major cause, and there are more than 100 types. But there are others.

In the fall, there are parainfluenza viruses that occasionally cause colds but also cause more severe illnesses, such as croup, which is an upper airway infection in children.

After that, there’s respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). In young babies, that’s very severe, but if you or I were to get an RSV infection, we would just get a cold.

Does catching one of these viruses build up a person’s immune system?

Dr. Cherry: You can build some immunity to the one particular virus you’ve been exposed to, that’s true. But there’s more than one rhinovirus type circulating, so you’d be just as likely to get another cold infection with another rhinovirus type. And any immunity is short-lived. It doesn’t even persist until the next year.

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So what are some ways to avoid getting sick this winter?

Dr. Cherry: Wearing your mask and social distancing, getting your flu shot and, of course, getting your COVID-19 vaccine and booster, if you need it. [Click here to see if you need a COVID-19 booster shot.]

You should also avoid touching your face. If you have a virus on your hands and you rub your eyes, you’re more likely to get infected. With cold viruses in general, wiping down surfaces with disinfectant is important.

In addition, you should wash your hands with soap often. Hand sanitizers are around everywhere, and they work — but only for viruses that have a protective outer layer, called an envelope. They don’t work well for enteroviruses, for example. But those are more common in the summertime. 

And of course, if you have a cold, stay away from other people.

Is it possible to build up your immune system to prevent getting sick?

Dr. Cherry: Healthy habits could help. An adequate diet with balanced nutrition is important. And there have been older studies that have shown that, for example, getting too little sleep can lead to more respiratory infections.

But skip the immune-boosting supplements. Most often, when these have been studied in any meaningful way, they don’t work.

So if you’re someone who tends to get sick in the winter, know that it’s not because of the chillier temps. But a few healthy habits can help you stay healthy all season long.

While you’re at it, download the Optum Perks discount card. It could help you save money on medicine prescribed by your doctor.


Additional source
Common colds are the main reason people miss work and school: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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