Teach Me

Cold Weather Making You Sick? The Real Reason You Are Sick

Has anyone ever cautioned you against venturing out into the cold with wet hair or shorts? “You’re going to catch a cold!” they warn.

While this unsolicited advice has been around forever, is there any truth behind it? Can you really catch a cold from cold weather?

Samia Kadri, a family nurse practitioner with Banner Health, helps us debunk these cold weather myths and explains why you get sick in wintertime. Plus, she shares tips to help you stay healthy.

Can going outside with wet hair make you sick? 

No, going outside with wet hair won’t make you sick. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt instead of a coat and pants won’t make you sick either. That said, you might feel super chilly and uncomfortable. 

“Wet hair and cold weather won’t make you sick, but they will make your body work harder to stay warm,” Kadri said. “This extra effort temporarily lowers your immunity (your body’s defense system).”

When your immune system is run down, you’re a bit more vulnerable to sneaky germs like the common cold and flu virus (influenza) that might be hanging around. So while being wet and cold won’t directly give you a cold, it won’t help your situation either.

So, if you get sick after being outside with wet hair or shorts, it won’t be the damp hair or lack of warm clothing that is to blame.  “It’s most likely because you came into contact with a virus-causing germ,” Kadri said.

What is the truth behind cold weather and sickness?

“The reason we see more sickness in winter has less to do with colder temperatures and more that these conditions often drive us to spend more time indoors, in crowded spaces with others,” Kadri said. “When someone coughs or sneezes, you’re more likely to be close to them and catch whatever they have.” 

Cold viruses, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza (the flu) thrive in cold, dry air. The drier air and lower humidity allow these airborne viruses to travel farther and stay in the air longer. 

“The low humidity may also dry out your nasal passages,” Kadri said. “The nasal membranes need moisture to prevent viruses from taking hold, multiplying and causing infection.”

Cold weather tips to help you stay healthy

Sometimes, avoiding cold, dry air and cramped indoor spaces isn’t an option. Kadri shared some best practices for reducing your risk of a cold, flu or another infection this time of year.

  1. Wash your hands: Handwashing is a good practice year-round. Clean your hands often with soap and water. If these aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  2. Cover coughs and sneezes: Use tissues or cover sneezes and coughs with your elbow.
  3. Maintain indoor hygiene: Keep indoor spaces well-ventilated and regularly disinfect commonly touched surfaces. This helps reduce the concentration of viruses in enclosed areas.
  4. Manage stress: High-stress levels may significantly impact your immune system. Practice deep breathing and reduce stressful situations in your life.
  5. Eat a well-balanced diet: Fuel your body with a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Limit alcohol.
  6. Stay active: Exercise boosts your immune system and improves overall health. Bundle up and take a brisk walk, or try indoor activities to stay active during the colder months. 
  7. Drink plenty of water: Hydration is important, even in cold weather. Drink plenty of water to keep your body functioning optimally. 
  8. Get enough sleep: Ensure you get enough sleep to help your body recover its defenses against infections.
  9. Avoid others who are sick: Practice social distancing by avoiding close contact with anyone who is ill. If you get sick, steer clear of others and wear a face mask to help prevent respiratory droplets from reaching other people.
  10. Get vaccinated: Getting vaccinations for COVID-19, flu, RSV and pneumococcal can help prevent illness and complications from common viruses. “By becoming vaccinated, not only do you protect yourself, but you protect other vulnerable groups – such as your grandparents or the very young – who are at higher risk from the flu and other viruses,” Kadri said.

For more helpful tips, check out Ways to Help Keep Your Family Healthy This Winter.

Bottom line

As winter sets in, remember that staying healthy involves more than keeping your hair dry and wearing a coat. While many of the health recommendations from family and friends may have some benefits, many are just myths.

If you have questions about your health, talk to your health care provider or visit a Banner Health specialist.

Feeling under the weather? Visit a Banner Urgent Care near you.

For other cold- and flu-related posts, check out:

Children's Health Wellness Cold and Flu