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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
1 December 2000

The Cold Season

The cold season of the year is upon us, in more ways than one. We've had some cold weather lately, and we've also had our share of colds and flu among kids and teachers at school. The common cold is a viral infection inside our always-warm nose and throat areas. Does cold winter weather really cause colds, like my Mom still says? It's interesting that our cold days here in Central California would be considered balmy in much of the country. Besides the common name, what's the real connection between catching a cold and being cold?

I get a runny nose when I'm cold, and I feel chills when I catch a cold. Despite the evidence and my Mom's advice, research has not found a direct connection between being cold and catching a cold, so why is winter the cold season across the country? Part of the answer must be that school is in session and we spend more time indoors with the windows closed. Close contact can create psychological stress, it's easy to exchange germs, and kids have little resistance. Low indoor humidity may be a factor, though it's our rainy season here in California. The best prevention is probably to wash your hands often, get outside even when it's cold, and stay happy!


Casey clipped this perfect cartoon from the local paper last week. (It's by John McPherson at This kind of testing really has been done, and hundreds of Web sites repeat the claim that "research has not shown a direct correlation of weather and the common cold."

Of course we do know about the germ theory. There certainly is a correlation between catching cold and cold weather, but it's not simple cause and effect. I've had terrible summer colds that are especially miserable with hot weather. The great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed at least 20 million people worldwide, with more fatalities than World War 1. It broke out in summer, though the deadliest wave of infection was in autumn and winter. It's reported that people who "winter over" at Antarctic research stations seldom get colds except when they host germ-laden visitors from warmer climes. The many viruses that cause colds need a warm body to incubate in. But the cold and flu season definately peaks in fall and winter here in North America, in Chicago as well as Santa Barbara, where the weather is quite different.

The language connection is interesting. Being cold feels like having a cold, and vica versa, since I get chills and a runny nose from both. (Fever chills is a great oxymoron!) When I catch a cold, I feel "under the weather". Is there a connection in other languages than English? But the cold stress we experience from cold weather is completely different from catching an upper-respiratory tract viral infection, even though the symptoms are similar. It seems there's no causal connection between being cold and catching a cold. Not everyone agrees, for example:

There has to be some truth to the folk wisdom, otherwise it has to be a real coincidence that in many languages around the world simultaneously people stumbled upon the same misnomer --- Viral coryza is known to laymen as "common cold" in English and by similar meaning words in 4 other languages that I know . Maybe we need to study about the predisposing factors some more.
This apparent connection remains a real stumper, and I don't want to turn away too quickly from all those old wives who tell their tales!

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) track influenza mortality data across the country with weekly updates. Colds and flu are not the same infection, but colds are mostly not reported. The peaks are all in mid-winter, but there's some activity year-round.

Demographic research might have some answers, but I haven't found it on the Web. When is the cold season in tropical countries that don't have such pronounced seasons as we do? When do kids catch colds in the new year-round schools?

The conventional answer is to blame the kids. This seems reasonable to me as a teacher! We catch more colds during the cold months because we're inside more with other people, and the sneezes and coughs of a person with a cold can contain the cold virus ready to infect. We catch each virus just once and develop antibodies as we fight it so we won't get it again. But there are hundreds of viruses that cause common colds, and most of them are new for the kids. Long-time teachers like me have been through this all before, but we're still vulnerable to a new infection. I usually get mild colds for just a day and rarely miss a school day, but now and then I get new virus that really flattens me. Many kids have been sick at school lately, but only two (of our six) teachers missed a day.

Einstein is reported to have said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Good advice! People have strong opinions about catching colds and weather and politics, and it doesn't do much good to argue about any of them! I can't make any claims about Vitamin C, Echinacea, Yerba Santa, Feed-it-or-starve-it, Interferon, ICAM-1, etc. Use whatever works, but I'm sure the best remedy is to stay healthy. (That's a pleonasm!) Antibiotics like penicillin do not kill viruses, but they may be needed if a cold spreads into the lungs to cause a secondary bacterial bronchitis or pneumonia infection. Colds are most contagious in their early stages, so please stay home and keep it to yourself!

Computer generated image of the protein coat of Human Rhinovirus 14, one of the 200 or so viruses that cause the common cold. Image from the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Wisconsin. Many more images are available in The Big Picture Book of Viruses.

Graybear has been busy with finals, but he found time for this answer, and the last word:

The cold, dry air of winter dries our sinus passages so they aren't able to filter the air we breathe as well. Second, once one person gets sick and starts sneezing and blowing their nose everywhere, they spread the germs around. Best way to avoid getting a cold is to eat a proper diet, take a little extra vitamin C, drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated, wash your hands frequently, and try not to be sneezed on.

I'm reminded of a riddle, though,...

What travels faster, heat or cold?
Heat! (Anybody can catch cold!)

This isn't a stumper I can solve, but I can point you in the right direction for further research:

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