Can cold weather actually make you ill?

The plummeting temperatures are hard to adjust to (Picture: Getty)

The UK is well and truly in the throws of its current cold snap, making many of us feel a bit run down.

The rapid changes in temperature – from a surprisingly mild autumn to a freezing winter (following the brutal summer heatwave of 2022) – have forced our bodies to try and adapt to climate extremes that many in the UK are not entirely used to.

But can these fluctuating temperatures actually make us feel ‘under the weather’?

Well, first of all, cold and flu viruses tend to be more common in the winter.

‘Changes in weather conditions can make you more susceptible to sickness, but a change of temperature itself does not make you sick,’ explains Abbas Kanani, a pharmacist from Chemist Click online pharmacy.

But there are some other key points to note…

Viruses thrive in cold, dry air

Viruses thrive in dry, cold and dark environments, and experts say droplets of water containing a virus (from coughing) can stay in the air for longer if it’s dry.

‘These conditions can also weaken our resistance, impacting our bodies by drying out the mucus membranes and allowing viruses into the body quicker,’ Abbas notes.

Our immunity drops 

With less sunshine and vitamin D in winter, our immune systems are also likely to become weaker – leaving us more susceptible to picking up and catching a cold or flu.

Cold air is also a factor.

‘Cold and drier air can also affect the way that our body reacts to a virus, and how our white cells that fight infection reach areas where they need to be to fight infections,’ GP Dr Hana Patel tells Metro.co.uk.

‘When and if our body temperature drops, viruses have an easier time multiplying and thus causing infection and for us to become unwell.’

We spend less time outside

Cold weather also forces us to stay indoors for extended periods of time, often around more people, which gives viruses the perfect environment to pass more easily between people, explains Abbas

While experts at Bupa add: ‘Viruses can move through the air in droplets when you sneeze or cough, be spread by hands, and live on contaminated surfaces like keyboards and door handles. 

‘Places like public transport, schools and the workplace are the perfect breeding ground for viruses.’

This explains why being in close contact with others in winter makes it easier for these viruses to spread around.

Hot weather plays a part too

It’s not just cold weather that can leave us vulnerable to illness and put stress on our immune systems – but sudden changes in temperature in general.

‘For example, the unprecedented heatwave in 2022 affected some people – in particular, elderly people – quite adversely,’ physiologist Dr Nerina tells Metro.co.uk.

‘These sudden changes in the temperature and weather can affect your health if you aren’t able to adapt appropriately to the changes.’

There are also seasonal allergies that coincide with heat, including hayfever – which can leave people with a blocked nose, itchy throat, eyes, and headaches.

The heat and associated humidity can also trigger asthmatic symptoms. But equally, breathing in cold air can trigger asthma.

So, in short, it’s not the weather itself that makes us ill but the conditions that these temperature changes create.



How to prevent becoming unwell when the weather changes:

Keep warm

This is obvious but, when it’s cold outside, wear extra warm layers of clothing to trap in the heat – rather than just one thick layer.

Abbas also suggests wearing a hat and other protective layers, such as a scarf or snood, to prevent body heat from escaping from your head, face and neck. 

Vitamin D and nutrition

‘In the winter, our bodies have less opportunity to make vitamin D,’ explains Dr Hana. 

‘And part of its role is to support and help our immune system, so trying to get out in the sun whenever there is nicer weather is advisable, and checking to make sure that you do not have a deficiency in vitamin D.’

People find that eating a diet focusing on vitamin D can help. 

Abbas adds: ‘Make sure you have adequate nutrition and include vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables daily.’

Stay active

The Bupa team suggest living a ‘healthy lifestyle’ to support your immune system and help fight off any germs.

‘In general, the healthier you are, the more readily your body will be able to adapt and regulate itself,’ Dr Nerina adds. 

‘This means cultivating healthy lifestyle habits – movement, sleep, hydration, nutrition, breathing and minimising stress.’

This will all help to strengthen your immune system and ensure that your body’s functioning as well as it can.

Going for a short walk and spending more time outside in cold conditions also helps your body acclimate to the cold.

Keep vigilant and maintain good hygiene

‘Wash your hands to stop spreading germs,’ says Dr Hana.

‘Use a tissue to sneeze into/catch mucus, and then bin it and wash our hands.

‘Also consider getting a humidifier, as heating can make the air drier in the home and a better environment for viruses to cause infections. 

Adapt

Ultimately you need to take things slowly.

‘Listen to your body and adapt your lifestyle choices – don’t try to do what you normally do in more “normal” temperatures,’ Dr Nerina warns.  

‘You may need to sleep more, move differently, eat and drink differently, socialise differently.  

‘The key is to listen and nurture your resilience. Extreme and sudden temperature changes are stressors that require resilience to deal with.’

Do you have a story to share?

Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.


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