While cold weather does not directly cause a cold, the viruses that cause colds may spread more easily in lower temperatures. Various steps can help a person avoid getting sick during the colder months.

In this article, we examine the relationship between cold and wet weather and the common cold. We also cover some tips for preventing colds.

woman sheltering under umbrella in a snow stormShare on Pinterest
Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), millions of people develop the common cold each year in the United States alone. On average, adults get two or three colds a year.

Many viruses can cause the common cold. Rhinoviruses are the most common cause and are responsible for around half of all colds and cold-like illnesses.

Rhinoviruses typically spread through direct person-to-person contact or inhaling small droplets in the air. These droplets are often known as aerosols.

Once inhaled, the rhinovirus attaches itself to the cells inside the nasal passages. It then replicates itself, spreading more virus particles throughout the upper respiratory tract.

Symptoms of the common cold

Symptoms of the common cold include:

  • a sore throat
  • a runny nose
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • high temperature
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • a loss of taste or smell

However, rhinoviruses can also cause more severe illnesses, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, in people with weakened immune systems.

Learn more about the symptoms of the common cold here.

Exposure to cold weather does not make people more susceptible to common colds.

Some research suggests that rhinoviruses may replicate more efficiently at temperatures lower than 37°C, or 98.6°F, the average core body temperature in humans. The temperature inside the nasal cavity is approximately 33°C (91.4°F), which may make it an ideal breeding ground for rhinoviruses.

However, this does not confirm that lower outside temperatures increase the risk of rhinovirus infection. Most research on rhinoviruses has primarily focused on examining how differences in body temperature affect the virus’s ability to reproduce.

One study examined whether or not variations in temperatures and humidity led to a higher risk of rhinovirus infection. The researchers found that decreases in temperature and humidity over 3 days increased the risk of rhinovirus infections in participants.

In the same study, researchers found that most infections occurred in temperatures at zero (32°F) and below.

The flu

While cold weather may not exacerbate rhinoviruses, cold, dry air, as is common in winter, can assist the transmission of influenza viruses.

During colder months, people may also spend more time indoors. If these spaces do not have adequate ventilation, people may have a greater risk of breathing in aerosols from others with common colds.

Many researchers believe that exposure to cold weather can adversely affect a person’s immune response, making it harder for the body to fight off infections. Reasons for this may include:

  • Reduced vitamin D levels: During the winter, many people get less vitamin D due to reduced sun exposure. Vitamin D plays an essential role in maintaining the immune system.
  • Lower temperatures may affect immune response: A 2015 study found that exposing airway cells taken from mice to lower temperatures decreased the immune response of the cells against a mouse-adapted rhinovirus.
  • Blood vessel narrowing: Breathing in cold and dry air causes the blood vessels in the upper respiratory tract to narrow to conserve heat. This may prevent white blood cells from reaching the mucous membrane, making it harder for the body to fight germs.

Some ways to avoid getting sick during the winter include:

  • ensure adequate nutrition to include vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables
  • getting plenty of sleep
  • staying hydrated
  • washing hands regularly
  • always sneezing and coughing into clean tissues
  • not sharing foods, drinks, crockery, and utensils with people who have a cold or the flu

Viruses, such as rhinoviruses and influenza, cause colds and the flu, not the weather. However, exposure to cold weather can increase a person’s risk of contracting a virus.

Research suggests that these viruses may survive and reproduce more effectively at colder temperatures, making it easier for them to spread and infect more people. Cold weather may also reduce the immune response and make it harder for the body to fight off germs.