UnityPoint Health - John Stoddard Cancer Center

Do You Really Get Sick from Being Cold?

Cold weather causing woman to blow her nose

Your mom always told you not to go outside in the cold with wet hair and to bundle up when heading out in the bitter temperatures – otherwise, you’d end up with an illness. So, do you really get sick from being cold? Shannon Fecher, ARNP, UnityPoint Health, answers this age-old question and tells you which of your mom’s home remedy cold treatments actually work.

Do You Get Sick from Being Cold?

While it’s advice you’ve heard for years, Fecher says it’s true, but not in the sense of catching a cold virus or the flu.

“You can’t get sick from being cold in general, whether you are outside or inside,” Fecher says. “Can you get sick from being cold? Yes, but not in terms of a cold or the flu. This comes from frostbite and/or even hypothermia. If you get frostbite or hypothermia, this can weaken the immune system, which leaves you more at-risk for getting illnesses, such as the common cold and/or the flu.”

Viruses tend to occur more in colder seasons, as we spend a lot of time indoors, which allows the virus to spread more readily. Instead of the cold causing illness, Fecher says it can actually help prevent you getting sick.

“It’s actually encouraged to go out even in the colder months for exercise and activities, as staying inside among others puts you at higher risk of getting ill,” Fecher says.

As for going outside with wet hair? Fecher says it’s along the same lines as the cold weather.

“Wet hair, or being wet, will not increase your chances of becoming ill with an upper respiratory condition. But again, if you become overly cold and suffer from hypothermia, you can weaken your immune system, increasing your chances of getting sick,” Fecher says.

Home Remedy Cold Treatments

Since some age-old sayings aren’t completely true, are home remedy cold treatments? Turns out you might want to try some of your mom’s advice you’ve heard for years. Fecher outlines why the following cold treatments work:

  • Eating chicken noodle soup. Chicken noodle soup relieves congestion because you’re eating something hot and steamy. This will typically help the nose begin to run, which reduces sinus pressure. The steam from the soup helps with the dryness and irritation in the nose as well. Some documentation says chicken noodle soup provides an anti-inflammatory effect, too.
  • Drinking tea with honey. Tea with honey soothes the throat. Honey is an antioxidant that helps make you feel better. Also, tea with honey helps with hydration, and hydration is a key component to overcoming illness.
  • Taking vitamin C supplements. If used, vitamin C at doses of 1-2000mg per day may help reduce a cold by one day. It certainly can’t hurt to take a vitamin C supplement to help reduce the length of a cold, but pushing and over consuming orange juice is just not necessary. Trying to get your vitamin C from orange juice may not be effective, as the sugar within the juice hinders absorption.

Fecher says there are a few other home remedy cold treatment options, but these should be used with more caution, or that the very least, with the awareness they may or may not leave you with your desired results.

  • Consuming zinc. Taking 75mg per day of zinc shows mixed results, but if taken regularly by adults, it ultimately may reduce the cold virus by one day.
  • Placing your head above a steaming/boiling pot of water. Putting your head over steaming or boiling water can help clear congestion by moistening nasal passages and helping with drainage. But, this can also cause burns, if not done appropriately. This would not be a recommended treatment method for any child. A steamy shower would be just as beneficial.
  • Using vapor rub. It’s only recommended to use in children 2 years old and older on the neck and chest area. Studies show that vapor rub tricks the brain to believe you’re breathing better, but it actually doesn’t provide any decongestant aspects.

“Rest is the number one thing I tell everyone as a way to feel better. Our immune systems only weaken more, if we don’t get proper rest,” Fecher says.


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When a Cold Requires a Trip to the Doctor

Most viruses last between seven and 10 days, but sometimes, even the best home remedies won’t do the trick. Fecher says adults should their provider with the following symptoms:

  • Consistent fever of 101.3 or higher
  • Fever lasting for five or more days, or a fever that begins again after a period of no fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Severe sore throat
  • Severe headache
  • Severe sinus pain

“Upper respiratory illnesses, like the common cold and flu, enter our body through the mouth, eyes or nose. This makes handwashing an important process in prevention. In addition, avoid touching your face, as this is commonly how we spread the illness. You can pick up the virus on any surface, as well as by droplet if someone coughs or sneezes in your direction. Always cover your mouth and nose with your sleeve or arm when you cough or sneeze,” Fecher says.

Other ways to prevent the spread of the cold and flu include frequent cleaning and disinfecting of common household surfaces, not sharing drinks or utensils, avoiding close contact with someone who is ill, getting enough sleep and managing stress.


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