The Myth of the Common Cold

I have a slight cold today; meanwhile poor Becky who should basking in the Balearic’s has a horrendous one. Of course her holiday is marred by constant rain anyway — but even so, sounds like she is pretty miserable. All around me people are catching dreadful colds, as the t -shirts of summer give way to the pullovers of autumnal England. The weather turns cold, and in the word of Bowie “you’ll sneeze and catch a  cold; cos you left your coat behind”, sentiments echoed by folk wisdom for centuries. Dress up warm in the cold, or you’ll catch cold. Yet intelligent sceptics know this is all rot – the common cold is caused by a virus, and nothing to do with weather. It’s all been debunked for years. But has it really? Or is this actually a myth?

Actually, I think it isa myth. I did a quick  search on evidence based medicine and statistical research, and found this

So colds are associated with colder weather.

We need to think it through though – correlation is not necessarily evidence of causation (though it very often is!)


1. The cold virus is likely to be dormant or less active in winter at sub-zero temperatures?
2. Yet people still get colds in winter, and cold weather does appear at the anecdotal level to be related to the common cold.

So why?

Well, what if we are constantly exposed to cold viruses in the environment? Then we might expect that given equal exposure, we would all be ill equally across the seasonal weather and temperature changes throughout the year.

Except: our immune systems might vary? We might be equally exposed, but more susceptible if the immune system was depressed. So could cold weather somehow depress our immune systems?

So does immune resistance vary with body temperature? Makes no sense, as our internal body temperature remains relatively static, and homeostasis is designed to allow an organism to adapt to prevailing conditions? However, what if variation in exposure to external temperature conditions leads to physiological shifts in the immune system? If so, going from a war environment to a very cold one or vice versa MIGHT actually depress our immune system resistance, even for only a few minutes — allowing a window for the cold virus to take effect in the host.  So it’s not the cold that causes us to catch colds, but sudden changes in temperature.

Logically then in an English winter going from a hot room to a freezing cold night could lead to an increase in cold infections by temporary immune system suppression, and as the virus despite the cold conditions that are less than optimum for replication is still present in the environment, colds increase. It would be exposure to rapidly varying temperatures rather than the cold itself which would lead to the illness.

An obvious objection: then we would expect to see more of all viruses in times when people pass from very warm environments so to very cold ones — but we may well do so, it is just that the highly infectious and environmentally prevalent common cold would appear more than say measles, allowing for the folk belief to arise from actual observations.

Of course this is probably rot — I know nothing worth knowing bout the subject, just speculating.  But if there was some actual enzyme or other change associated with the nose and eyes that might cause brief immune suppression during rapid temperature change as the body adjusts, that might well be the way that the common cold normally enters the body, and that might be worth investigating?

Anyway hope Becky is recovering and enjoying her holiday, and best wishes to everyone else cursed with a cold this week!

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in Debunking myths, Science, Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Myth of the Common Cold

  1. Carolyn says:

    An easy answer to what might make a difference in the winter is less sunshine reaching the skin, and thus less vitaamin D. Since reading articles from the Vitamin D Council, I started taking 5000 IU of vitamin D daily on days I do not get sufficient sun on my skin. Since I started that, I have stopped getting sick in the winter! Aabundance of Vitamin D is correlated to lower rates of many diseases, including colds and flu, cancer, heart disease, stroke, autoimmune disease, and others.
    and others. Google it.

  2. Alan LaRue says:

    Our body temperatures may remain fairly constant, but the temperature in our nasal passages would seem to be cooler in the winter. Perhaps this drop is just enough to make our airways hospitable for the virus.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Hi Alan, yes homeostasis would keep us pretty constant, but the nasal area was what I was wondering about. I really think it would be worth checking out one day. Nice to “meet” btw!

  3. Charlene Weeber says:

    The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract — your nose and throat. A common cold is usually harmless, although it may not feel that way. If it’s not a runny nose, sore throat and cough, it’s the watery eyes, sneezing and congestion — or maybe all of the above. In fact, because any one of more than 100 viruses can cause a common cold, signs and symptoms tend to vary greatly. .

    Up to date blog post on our own webpage

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