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Do you find yourself constantly fighting off a cold in the winter months? You might have wondered if this is because you’re not wrapping up properly when you’re outside or because you haven’t put the heating on. We asked a doctor to explain whether or not this is really the case.

It’s that time of year again when we’re all stocking up on tissues, vitamin C supplements and cough medicine to try and fight off winter colds and flu. In fact, nothing signals the change of the season more than waking up with a scratch in the back of your throat that you just can’t get rid of.

While summer colds do exist – and, of course, you can catch viruses like Coronavirus at any point in the year – the average person is far more likely to catch a cold in autumn and winter than in the warmer months of the year.

You might have therefore assumed that feeling cold is one of the things that can make you more likely to catch a cold. But is this really the case?

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What actually *is* a cold?

It’s something we’ve all experienced but you might not realise exactly what’s happening to your body when you’re dealing with the common cold.

“A cold is a viral infection of the nose and throat and, normally, it is short-lived and harmless, imuran bijwerkingen lever ” says GP Dr Ross Perry. “You can expect a cold to last seven to 10 days or sometimes a little longer depending on your lifestyle. The main symptoms of a cold will be a runny nose, sore throat, congestion, raised temperature, fatigue, muscle aches and a mild cough.”

How do you catch a cold?

Colds are viral infections, which means you catch them from other people who have cold viruses. “You can only catch a cold through coughs and sneezes,” says Dr Perry. “The average cough expels about 20,000 viruses, which can potentially infect a number of people.

“When someone coughs, around 3,000 droplets of saliva are expelled out of the mouth, which can spread as far as six metres, while sneezing can spread up to eight metres,” he explains.

On top of this, these droplets remain in the air for up to 10 minutes, allowing people in close proximity to inhale them, and they can also survive for days on surfaces. Coming into contact with these droplets is how a virus is able to enter your body, kickstarting a long process which can lead to the common cold.

“When the virus breaks through the body’s outer defences, it ends up in the respiratory tract – the passage formed by the mouth, nose, throat and lungs. Here, the virus binds to the surface of the cells,” Dr Perry explains.

From there, the virus will reproduce in your body and then enter your bloodstream, which is when you’ll start to feel the first symptoms of a cold. These symptoms are your immune system’s attempt at sending antibodies to fight the infection. Having a runny nose, for example, is our body’s way of expelling the build-up of mucus, while a sore throat is the result of inflamed mucus membranes. Sneezing and coughing is the body’s way of driving out bacteria and other particles.

We get fewer colds as we get older

The more you’re exposed to cold viruses, the less likely you are to get them. “Children get three times as many colds as adults,” Dr Perry says. “This is because [adults] will have been exposed to more colds in their lifetime so have developed more antibodies to common cold viruses than younger people.”

Why do more people catch colds in the winter?

There are a few reasons why we’re more likely to catch colds in the winter than at other times of the year. For a start, we’re more likely to be indoors – in pubs, in restaurants, or at home – during the winter, rather than outside. “Colds are more common in colder months because we spend more time indoors which allows viruses to pass more easily from one person to another,” Dr Perry explains.

It’s harder to fight off infections in cold weather

Plus, the cold weather has a direct impact on the immune system, meaning it can be more difficult to fight off infections when there’s a chill in the air. “The cold dry air may weaken resistance, affecting the body’s immune system, as it wears down defences against infection,” Dr Perry says. This is because breathing in cold air causes the blood vessels to narrow, which could prevent white blood cells from reaching the mucus membrane and fighting germs effectively. Research from 2015 also suggested that cold viruses are able to replicate more easily at lower temperatures.

A lack of vitamin D is also to blame

On top of this, a lack of natural sunlight in the winter could also make people more susceptible to colds. “The shorter days and longer nights of winter mean less sunlight and therefore less natural vitamin D, which helps power the immune system. This consequently makes us more vulnerable to infections,” says Dr Perry.

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Can being cold make you catch a cold?

It’s certainly true that most people are more likely to catch colds in the winter months. But can simply being cold trigger the cold virus in your body? According to Dr Perry, this is a myth. “Feeling cold does not make you catch a cold,” he says.

This is because the only way for you to catch a cold is to come into contact with someone else who has one, which has no direct correlation with being cold.

What about a runny nose?

You might be wondering why you get a runny nose when you’re cold, if it’s not because you’re catching a virus. But this actually has nothing to do with infection. Rather, it’s because the air you breathe in needs to be warm and wet so it doesn’t irritate the lungs. When you breathe in cold air, this irritates the nerves in your nose and sends a message to your brain to increase blood flow to the nose, which warms the air passing through. The nose is also triggered to produce more secretion through the mucus glands, in order to add moisture to the air passing through. Sometimes, this creates excess moisture, which is why your nose might run when it’s cold.

But as soon as you’re back in a warm environment, breathing through your nose should return to normal and there’s no reason that you would develop cold symptoms after being physically cold. 

Images: Getty

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