Does cold weather cause colds?

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    Differences between colds and the flu

Differences between colds and the flu 01:21

Story highlights

  • Spending more time indoors in cold weather can foster the spread of viruses
  • Dry and cold conditions may make it easier for the cold virus to invade
  • A cold could actually be one of many bugs

Winter is the season to come down with colds. Awful, sniffling, sneezing, muscle-achy colds. We know cold weather has something to do with this. Or do we?

We spoke with two experts -- Dr. Sorana Segal-Maurer, chief of the Dr. James J. Rahal Jr. Division of Infectious Disease at New York Hospital Queens, and Dr. Brian P. Currie, vice president and senior medical director of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York -- to find out the truth once and for all.

The rumor: Cold weather causes colds

Why is winter the common-cold season? It's a common perception that when the weather gets colder, we tend to get sick more. This is why we bundle up in warm clothes before facing the elements: We want to protect ourselves against frigid weather because we don't want to catch colds.

The verdict: Cold weather does not cause colds

According to Segal-Maurer, it isn't actually the cold weather that causes the common cold, it's what we do when it gets cold out.

"When the weather turns cold," she says, "we all run indoors, where air is recycled and we're often in close quarters with other people and viruses. We all sneeze on top of each other."

    This is why the cold season is the same -- though maybe not as severe -- in warmer climates like Los Angeles as it is in colder ones like New York or Chicago.

    "Dry and cold conditions are probably more high-risk situations for viruses because of dry mucosa," adds Segal-Maurer. The mucosa, she says, is what lines your trachea, the back of your throat and your sinuses. Viruses invade the mucosa and start growing, causing your cold.

    And that's viruses -- as in, plural. The common cold isn't just one type of virus: When you say "I've got a cold," that could mean you have one of many bugs.

    "There are a variety of different cold viruses," says Currie, "... so it makes sense that there is no one therapy to treat a cold."

    The strength of our own immune system also plays a big part in how susceptible we are to colds, and how severe they might be.

    "The extremes are the young babies, the older adults, those with underlying medical conditions," explains Segal-Maurer. "But even those who take low-dose steroids -- those people don't make as many antibodies, and the cells that are supposed to fight infection are not as well equipped to do that. So when they do get a cold, it's more severe. We're all susceptible, but what may be a 24-hour cold for me may be a week (of illness] for somebody else."