Can a Change in the Weather Make You Sick?

Woman Blowing Nose During Winter
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It seems like every time the weather changes significantly—specifically from warm to cold—suddenly a lot of people get sick. Many people blame the weather when they don't feel well. Whether it's an increase in the number of colds you get or you just don't feel great when there is a significant weather change, there has to be something to this phenomenon, right? Could a change in temperature really make people sick?

Cold Weather and Colds

Germs make people sick, not air temperatures. But research has shown that viruses that cause illnesses such as the common cold and other respiratory infections do spread more easily in cool, dry conditions. The viruses that cause these illnesses also adhere to dry nasal passages more easily, where they multiply, spread through your body, and make you sick.

So, technically, it's not the temperature of the air around you that is making you sick, but it does make it easier to get sick. Taking steps to keep yourself healthy can reduce your chances of getting sick, but it's more likely to happen in colder temperatures no matter what you do.

Additionally, people tend to stay inside and in closer contact with other people when the weather is cold. Closer proximity to sick people means you are more likely to get sick as well. Kids, especially, share their germs far better than they share their toys. So it's no surprise that illnesses run rampant through schools and daycares every fall, winter, and spring.

Rates of contagious illness are frequently higher when people live in close proximity to each other—dormitories, nursing homes, and even hospitals. Because people are in close contact with a greater number of people more frequently in these environments, germs spread more easily, even when we take precautions to prevent that from happening. This is why hospitals often enact visitor restrictions during cold and flu season, so people who are there to get better don't end up getting sicker.

Chronic Illnesses

People with chronic conditions such as asthma truly can be affected by changes in the temperature. Significant changes in air temperature or quality can cause asthma flares. In cases like this, a person is not sick due to an infection, but the symptoms of an asthma attack can be severe just because of a change in the weather.

If you or your child tends to have problems with your asthma when the weather changes, be sure to discuss this with your doctor. Make sure you are on good maintenance medications and you have an asthma action plan in place so you know what to do if your symptoms worsen.

Those with chronic pain may be impacted by changes in temperature or barometric pressure. If you have arthritis, fibromyalgia, or another condition that causes chronic pain you may have increased difficulty when the weather gets colder. Pay attention to the weather changes that affect you the most and you will be better prepared to deal with them in the future.

There are many other chronic health conditions that may be affected by the weather as well. If you have a condition that seems to be chronic, discuss what you can do to manage the symptoms when weather changes occur with your doctor. Attempting to be prepared can make dealing with the changes in weather a little easier.

What You Can Do to Stay Healthy

Regardless of what is causing your symptoms—whether it's the change in temperature or the germs that are spreading in the cooler air—there are steps you can take to keep yourself as healthy as possible.

Simple things like washing your hands frequently will go a long way to avoiding illness. Make sure you are washing your hands correctly and frequently. If your skin gets dry after washing them, use a moisturizing lotion to avoid cracks in the skin. Make sure you wash your hands before and after preparing food, before eating, after using the bathroom and after changing diapers.

Try to avoid touching your face. This one is really hard, but the primary way we get sick is when germs enter our body through the eyes, mouth, or nose. If you have germs on your hands (which you do unless you just finished washing them), you can easily infect yourself when you touch your face with your hands. If you stop and think about it, you probably do this much more than you realize. Try to make a conscious effort to avoid touching your face when you are out in public or around people that you know are sick.

Use hand sanitizer if you can't wash your hands. Especially before you eat. If you are out at a restaurant, there is no telling what germs you have come into contact with between your house and those steaming hot rolls the waiter just put down in front of you. Before you grab one and start eating it, either go wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. No one wants a yeast roll with a side of rhinovirus.

Make healthy food choices. Get adequate sleep (ideally seven to nine hours for adults). Exercise regularly. Doing all of these things consistently will allow your body to fight off infections. Your immune system won't work as well as it needs to if your body isn't healthy. There's no guarantee that you will never get sick if you take care of your body, but chances are good it will happen a lot less often.

If you have a chronic health condition like asthma, make sure you are taking your maintenance medications or following the care plan your healthcare provider has laid out for you. Everyone manages their chronic conditions differently, but making sure you are following your doctor's instructions will help minimize the effects you will experience when weather changes occur.

Get a flu vaccine. This won't protect you from every respiratory illness, but influenza is one of the most severe and we are all susceptible to it. Getting a flu vaccine every flu season will help protect you and those around you from dealing with it. Even if you aren't in a high-risk group, the flu is highly contagious and you could pass it on to someone who is before you even know you are sick. The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu, so get the shot and protect yourself. 

Bottom Line

People often want to blame their illnesses on the weather. It's easy to assume that because the temperature dropped, that's why you feel so bad now. But as we say in the research world, "correlation does not equal causation." Meaning, just because two things appear to be related that does not mean one is causing the other to occur.

There is evidence that the weather has an effect on germs and how likely we are to get sick, but it's still not the temperature itself that is causing your sniffles, sneezes, and cough. Take precautions to keep yourself healthy year-round, and you will be less affected by temperature changes and cold weather when it occurs.

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Article Sources
  • Can the Weather Affect My Child’s Asthma? KidsHealth from Nemours.

  • Facts About the Common Cold. American Lung Association.