Does Being Cold Cause Illness?

Cathy Rogers

"If you don’t wrap up, you’ll catch your death of a cold." Many of us have heard similar words of advice about the connection between being cold and catching an illness. Although most of us believe that being cold does not cause illness, the jury is officially still out. Most research supports that being cold does not affect one’s likelihood of catching a virus that causes the common cold or the flu.

A drop in body temperature may lead to the development of a dormant cold virus.
A drop in body temperature may lead to the development of a dormant cold virus.

Medical research in the 1950s exposed 400 volunteers to cold viruses using various temperatures and conditions as variables. The result was no difference in the rate of infection between the different groups. A similar study in the late 1960s produced comparable results.

It is theorized that people often get sick in the winter due to increased inside contact with others.
It is theorized that people often get sick in the winter due to increased inside contact with others.

However, some studies imply that being cold cause illness. Some arguments indicate that if you’re cold, your body is more stressed and therefore less resistant to fight a virus. Research by Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre in Wales has proven that a drop in body temperature can cause a dormant cold virus to develop. If a person becomes chilled, for example by wearing damp clothes in cold weather, the blood vessels in the nose become constricted. When this occurs, the warm blood is closed off, and is no longer supplying the infection-fighting white cells.

One of the common ways to catch a cold is by coming into contact with airborne droplets that are projected when someone who is already sick sneezes.
One of the common ways to catch a cold is by coming into contact with airborne droplets that are projected when someone who is already sick sneezes.

One study involved the effects of volunteers placing their bare feet in an empty bowl for 20 minutes or soaking their feet in a bowl containing ice-cold water for the same length of time. Within five days after the experiment, more participants who had soaked their feet in cold water developed cold symptoms than the other participants. According to the study, most likely several of those participants already had the cold virus but were not yet displaying symptoms. The lowering of body temperature was a contributing factor; in this case being cold caused illness, not the virus, but the development of the virus.

A lack of rest can affect a person's immune system.
A lack of rest can affect a person's immune system.

The more likely reason that people tend to get sick more often in the winter season is the increased inside contact with others, some of whom have viruses. As the weather is chilly, people tend to stay indoors more often, making places such as schools, stores, airports and offices likely places to for catching a cold.

People usually catch colds via the airborne droplets from a sneeze. Other methods of catching a cold are by contact from the hand to nose or eye areas after direct contact with a person who has the virus or indirect contact, such as touching the same doorknob.

The best way to avoid a cold or virus is not to avoid being cold, but instead avoid crowded places and frequently wash your hands. Results from yet another study indicate that those who have a positive outlook and are upbeat are less likely to catch a cold than those who were had a more negative emotional style.

People are more susceptible to colds during winter months.
People are more susceptible to colds during winter months.

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Discussion Comments


I sometimes sleep with a neck warmer when I feel a cold coming on. It seems to help, but I cannot find any studies regarding this. Anyone notice something similar?


Being that humans are homeotherms, we are quite good at maintaining our body temperature. Just because we feel cold and shiver a little bit does not indicate a drop in body temperature - that would be hypothermia and it is much more serious than a common cold. So is necrosis - this only occurs in extreme circumstances.

When people say you'll catch a cold, they are not referring to these extreme situations. If there were really a risk of hypothermia or frost bite, then I would hope the advice would be more along the lines of "don't go outside; you might literally freeze to death."

When we exercise, we burn calories and the body must work to maintain its ideal temperature of about 37°C. Does this mean people are likely to catch a cold from exercising?

Where is the evidence to show that the body diverts resources away from the immune system in order to stay warm? This seems very vague to me and again, is this only in extreme circumstances? The immune system, just like every other system in the body does, rely on the homeostatically maintained optimum body temperature, just like every other system in the body. But unless a person is hypothermic or hyperthermic, their body temperature does not change, regardless of how cold or hot they feel.


People are just too stuck in old wives tales to let go. I have been walking barefoot in the snow for years. I go outside with my hair wet all the time. I rarely wear a jacket.

I catch cold once or twice a year, sometimes just the same as my friend who is the opposite. She believes all the old wives' tales. People, wash your hands often and stay away from people who are sick if you are worried about catching a cold. Bare feet and wet hair are not the cause.


just to follow the point of the previous post. if the body has to work harder to combat heat loss, it does so by calorie burn.

calorie burn requires replenishment by feeding and rest.

now to place the point into a practical situation if a person is exposed to low temperatures for long sequenced periods of time, let's say working outside at night for approx eight hours over a five day period, 48 weeks of the year and possibly for many years, would it not then be the case that they could suffer fatigue if not rested and nourished correctly?

If that was the case then accumulative fatigue could suppress the immune system over a extended period of time therefore is it possible that that person could experience more frequent, more serious and longer duration illness?


Also, what some people are forgetting is that cooling of certain parts of the body causes cell necrosis, which causes the body's immune system to be occupied with cleaning up those dead cells, thus weakening the body's defenses.


One idiom about getting sick or cold that is definitely not true is the one about how more of your body's heat escapes through the head than anywhere else. The most heat escapes from wherever the most skin is exposed, be it the head, the neck, the hands, or the legs. The difference is that if you wear a big coat and no hat, the head is the most exposed. However, if you don't feel you need a hat, you probably don't.


@rosoph -- That may be true, but I wouldn't suggest it if you are already feeling the symptoms of an illness coming on. It still may be true that a decrease in body temperature makes us less likely to fight of an illness. So, if you're feeling ill, better to stay inside and get some rest.


How ironic it is that a cold may actually be easier to catch if you are inside, rather than outside in the cold. Maybe, instead of staying inside to avoid getting sick, we should all bundle up and go outside to get some fresh air.


Even though being chilled does not cause cold or flu in itself, bacteria do, however, when the body temperature drops the body's primary job becomes keeping the core warm, and that becomes the primary focus.

Any bacteria living in our body, or any exposure to bacteria in others, becomes more of a threat because the body's immune system is weakened and can not fight the bugs as easily. This is at least how i see it.

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