Old Wives Tales Debunked: Does Getting Cold Make You Catch a Cold?

Worried about catching a cold this winter? Resident columnist Alison Lee has some useful tips to avoid this pitfall

Females will be particularly familiar with that catchphrase of mothers the world over: “Wrap up warm if you’re going out, you don’t want to catch cold”. This is usually directed at us as we’re tottering out the front door in open-toed high heels and strapless dresses, and I tend to respond by rolling my eyes, throwing on a flimsy cardigan, then wishing I had paid more attention as I wait shivering for the Nitelink.

But can getting cold actually make you catch cold? The University Observer’s highly scientific response to this question is: Errrr…. Sort of. The causative agents of the common cold are viruses; microscopic beasties with catchy names like coronavirus, rhinovirus and human respiratory syncitical virus. But these viruses are with us all year round, so why do we fall victim to them in winter?

Firstly, our lifestyles change when winter arrives. People gather indoors, giving viruses the perfect opportunity to spread. This is the reason UCD annually becomes a seething cauldron of disease, with people from all parts of Ireland sharing stuffy lecture theatres, not to mention sharing bodily fluids in stuffy nightclubs.

Also, central heating tends to dry out the air, which reduces the ability of our cilia to function. Cilia are microscopic, hair-like structures projecting from the cells that line the trachea. They move back and forth, wafting mucus, dust, bacteria and viruses up and out of our lungs. In dry conditions, this escalator mechanism slows down, rendering us more vulnerable to infection.

And being physically cold may play a part in allowing viruses to cause illness. We humans have to regulate our body temperature, keeping it at 37 degrees Celsius – this uses up a hell of a lot of energy when you’re out in the chilly winter air. Thus there’s less energy for our immune systems to use in the war against pathogens. In addition, when our extremities (like our feet) get cold, the blood flow to these areas diminishes to minimise heat loss. Therefore, immune cells (such as white blood cells) aren’t transported around our bodies as efficiently as usual.

Of course, if while reading this, you’ve already become that irritating person hacking and coughing like a Dickensian orphan at the back of the lecture theatre, then it’s too late to advise you to bundle up in your winter woollies. Bet you’re starting to regret wearing green to that traffic light ball during Freshers’ Week. Thinking back, that pimply guy from Laois didn’t look too healthy, did he? Oh well, stock up on vitamin C and better luck next year.