Why people get sick in the winter and how to prevent it from happening to you

Published 9:58 pm Sunday, January 7, 2018

Whether or not we are able to enjoy a white Christmas, there’s one winter tradition many families can’t seem to shake: illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, adult Americans average two to three colds each year, with children being even more vulnerable to the virus. The rate of people catching colds tends to spike in the winter and spring months. There are millions of cases each year in the U.S. alone not counting other seasonal illnesses like the influenza virus (flu), strep throat and pneumonia.

While for most people winter sickness is little more than an inconvenience, it can prove fatal for society’s most vulnerable populations, like the elderly and young children. In December, the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department reported three elderly people died after getting the flu. All three had additional health complications, but the flu was ultimately the cause of their deaths.

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Wintertime has always been a season of increased sickness, leading to the myth that cold temperatures cause sickness. But while the direct connection once assumed does not exist, there may be more to the old wives’ tale than meets the eye.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, cold temperatures themselves don’t cause sickness, but they do create situations where sickness can spread.

“More recently, humans have recognized that viruses are the true cause of colds and speculated that the close contact with others when we are forced indoors by the weather might be to blame for the cold-season association,” Smithsonian writer Marissa Fressenden said.

Also, the temperature dropping affects the viruses that cause colds in humans.

“Rhinoviruses, which are the most common cause for colds, are better able to reproduce at temperatures just below the body’s 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit,” Fressenden writes.

She referenced a study published in the Los Angeles Times that showed viruses fared better in the cooler nasal cavity cells of rodents than in warmer cells in their bodies.

The results of the study seem to suggest that covering one’s nose when going outside in the cold can actually help prevent the common cold.

Protecting from

the common cold

The CDC offers several tips for preventing colds year round.

“Viruses that cause colds can spread from infected people to others through the air and close personal contact,” the CDC says. “You can also get infected through contact with stool or respiratory secretions from an infected person. This can happen when you shake hands with someone who has a cold, or touch a doorknob that has viruses on it, then touch your eyes, mouth or nose.”


While getting a cold doesn’t pose much of a risk to most people, if left untreated and in people with weakened immune systems it can develop into more dangerous illnesses like pneumonia.

According to the CDC, pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes mild to severe illness is people of all ages. However, it is the leading cause of infectious death in children younger than 5.

Other people more likely to get pneumonia are smokers and people with underlying medical conditions like diabetes or heart disease.

In the U.S., vaccines can protect against some of the bacteria and viruses that can cause pneumonia. These include flu shots, the chickenpox vaccine, the whooping cough vaccine and others.


The new year may have come, but Clark County is still in the middle of flu season. According to CDC data, the flu can be caught at any time during the year, but December through March is when it is at its peak in the U.S.

Flu is caused by viruses that are typically spread through tiny droplets made when infected people cough, sneeze or even talk. Those infected with the flu are at their most contagious in the first three to four days after their symptoms appear. However, in some cases, people may be able to infect others up to a full day before their symptoms appear.

Like the cold, studies have shown flu-causing viruses can reproduce better in conditions slightly colder than the average 98.6 degrees of the human body.

Because flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics do not help in combatting the disease. There are some antiviral drugs that can be prescribed to help combat flu symptoms.

In addition to the healthy practices for preventing the common cold, the CDC recommends everyone take the time to get a flu vaccine. In addition, the CDC recommends taking antiviral drugs if prescribed by a doctor.

Strep throat

Strep throat is an infection caused by the bacterium Group A Streptococcus, which can also cause scarlet ever impetigo and others.

The infection is spread through contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. In addition to a sore and red throat, symptoms can include severe pain when swallowing, a fever of 101 degrees or above, or swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck.

Like the cold and flu, cold temperatures forcing people to stay inside buildings and closer together may contribute to the spike in the illness seen in the colder winter to early spring months.

Because it is a bacterial infection, strep can be treated with antibiotics, which will shorten the duration of the illness and help prevent its spread to others. The CDC recommends that anyone diagnosed with strep stay home and avoid contact with others until having been on antibiotics for at least 24 hours. 

The CDC says taking precautions to stay healthy and prevent the spread of disease during the colder seasons can help limit the risk to children, the elderly and high-risk populations. Staying home from work after coming down with a sickness can help reduce the number of absences overall by reducing the number of days they are around their coworkers while contagious.