Does being cold give you a cold?

by Gillian Mayman on October 29, 2012

An illustrated guide to parenting with science.

The fall and spring seasons always create contentious relationships between my kids and their teachers. The problem is that the teachers insist that my kids wear coats when they go outside, even if they enjoy the chill in the air.

The teachers think that being cold means getting a cold.

Benjamin Franklin argued against this idea in the 18th century. He observed that sailors were constantly wearing wet clothing in cold weather but still remained healthy. He concluded that “People often catch cold from one another when shut up together in small close rooms, coaches, &c. and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each other’s transpiration.”

But is this true? After all, Franklin posited this before the existence of viruses was known.

It is surprisingly difficult to find any experimental evidence that reliably shows that exposure to cold weather either causes colds or does not.

The National Institutes of Health says:

There is no experimental evidence  that exposure to cold temperatures  increases the chances that you will  get a cold.

In the review article, “Exposure to cold and respiratory tract infections,” E. G. Mourtzoukou and M. E. Falagas explore the scientific evidence for the common understanding that exposure to cold temperatures can cause a person to become sick with a cold.

They found ONLY ONE research paper with any experimental evidence to support the idea that being cold gives you a cold.

In this study, 180 college students were randomly separated into two groups. The first group of 90 students had their feet placed in a bowl of 50 degree Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) water for 20 minutes. The other group of 90 students kept their socks and shoes on and placed their feet in an empty bowl for 20 minutes. The researchers found that within 4-5 days, cold symptoms appeared around 10% more often in the students who had their feet chilled.

The study has a few problems. The largest problem is that it was not blind. That is, the people who had their feet chilled, knew that their feet were being chilled (of course). Even worse, the cold symptoms of the students were self-reported. The students kept daily journals after having their feet chilled (or not) and wrote down any cold-like symptoms that they experienced. The placebo effect is well studied and researchers know that simply thinking that something has happened which may cause an effect, can actually cause a real effect.

There are many studies that show there is no effect between exposure to coldness and getting a cold. But these are problematic as well. Most of the studies are from the mid-20th century. They were conducted primarily through dripping infected mucus into the noses of the research subjects along with being placed in a cold room or water. The primary concern with these studies is that having virus-laden snot dripped into your nose is not the natural way of contracting a cold. This does not mirror the real world closely enough and it is difficult for some people to take these results as conclusive.

Science and medicine are full of uncertainties. When the evidence is inconclusive, you are left to come to your own decisions based on what you see is the best evidence available.

For me, I agree with Ben Franklin. But I wish I had a stronger argument to convince the school that my kids don’t really need to wear coats if they’re not cold.

P.S.

The subject of why colds happen more often during cold weather seasons is extremely complex. If you would like more information on this topic, I recommend a paper by Yusuf et al. on meteorological events and the epidemiology of RSV (RSV is one type of virus which causes cold-like symptoms).

 

PF Anderson October 29, 2012 at 8:49 am

Another masterful post! I was especially impressed with how you subtly infiltrated the citation information into the body of the text in two places.

“In the review article, “Exposure to cold and respiratory tract infections,” E. G. Mourtzoukou and M. E. Falagas explore the scientific evidence for the common understanding that exposure to cold temperatures can cause a person to become sick with a cold.”
AND
“I recommend a paper by Yusuf et al. on meteorological events and the epidemiology of RSV”

I also heartily approve of selecting articles available for free to the general public! It can’t always be done, but I love that you did it. :)

I was a little puzzled why you did not include either a citation or enough information to find the article for two of the most important articles you cite.

Lisa Gensel. The Medical World of Benjamin Franklin. J R Soc Med. 2005 December; 98(12): 534–538.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1299336/

Claire Johnson and Ronald Eccles. Acute cooling of the feet and the onset of common cold symptoms. Family Practice (December 2005) 22 (6): 608-613.
doi: 10.1093/fampra/cmi072
http://fampra.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/6/608.long

PF Anderson October 29, 2012 at 8:55 am

Here’s an interesting tidbit from the “chill the feet” article which wasn’t mentioned in the blogpost.

“The subjects who reported that they developed a cold (n = 18) reported that they suffered from significantly more colds each year (P = 0.007) compared to those subjects who did not develop a cold (n = 162).”

Maybe chilling is one of those risk factors that is selective, truly a risk factor for some people (those at higher risk otherwise), but not for most?

Angela October 29, 2012 at 10:50 am

Thanks for your post! As a cold water swimmer, I get inundated with scare stories all the time to make me stop jumping into ice pools. Never had a cold from this so far, though this might have to do with training. It seems odd that there has not been more research on this. In the cold water swimming community there are a lot of myths around it (‘brown fat’), but not much scientific evidence, it seems.
In Britain, there was actually a bizarre holiday camp like research project called The Common Cold Unit. A colleague of mine showed me some entertaining photos from there: http://boingboing.net/2010/01/29/cold-for-the-holidays.html However, again, they appeared to focus on viruses and not on temperature.

Andrew Maynard October 29, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Thanks for bringing up the Common Cold Unit Angela – growing up in the UK this was the stuff of legend! I actually went through a patch of wanting to be a volunteer – full board, long country walks, and only a few snuffles to pay :-)

Nancy Belusky October 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Enjoyable blog. Love the graphics and the tone/style of the writing.

Mary Hall November 3, 2012 at 7:45 am

I really enjoyed this piece. It started out whimsical –with Benjamin Franklin’s musings–and then moved into serious science but with lighthearted explanations for the limitations of various studies. I loved the graphics –especially the final graph. Very clever.

Will H November 11, 2012 at 3:05 pm

The statement about cold temps and colds is not correct. A number of studies over the years have indicated that colder temps reduce the immune system’s effectiveness. While cold will not “give you a cold” it makes it far easier to catch one when exposed to one.

Higher temperatures kill the cold virus, such as a fever, and the moderate temps in the nose during winter months is just perfect for colds.

Indeed, the logic test is also applicable here. The 200+ types of cold viruses universally do not survive very long outside the body in cold and dry— colds survive longer on surfaces in the summer months in humid climates than they do in cold and dry or hot and dry. They have to be passed from person to person. That is much more easily accomplished when the immune system’s effectiveness is reduced.

The climates worst for colds are those like the Pacific Northwest, where in the lowlands, it is cold and humid most of the year, and in the highlands, the temps typically change 20 degrees or more every two to three days, not giving the body a chance to get used to the new temperature. It’s not unusual for persons in the Willamette Valley or Puget Sound to get multiple colds per year because of the effects of the climate on the human immune system.

Eli Webber April 11, 2013 at 1:27 am

I consider myself of scientific nature (ex-pharmacist/web developer), yet despite the mountain of evidence, my biology lessons, logic, and my medical friends explanations – fail to be convinced that developing a cold has nothing to do with how cold your feet get.

Why not? Simply based on the empirical evidence that for the hundredth time, I’ve gone to sleep under the duvet , but without my socks, and again woken up with the sniffles – indeed, the very reason I sought out this article. Surely if I wake up with a cold I haven’t tricked my mind into developing one? Obviously we know colds are caused by various viruses but there may be some way in which cold feet make some people more susceptible.

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