Can You Get Sick From Cold Weather? How Winter Can Affect Your Health

Zain J. Sultan, MD, is a board-certified primary care physician practicing family medicine at Inova Medical Group – Crystal City. He focuses on the whole patient and encourages patients to use lifestyle changes, in addition to necessary medications and other treatments, to prevent and manage chronic disease.

Each year there are millions of cases of the common cold. They tend to occur in the winter and early spring, with adults averaging two to three colds per year.

But common colds aren’t the only health issue winter seems to invite. Your respiratory and mental health are big causes for concern in the colder months.

The good news is by taking some proactive measures, you may be able to ward off winter health woes. Here’s what you need to know:

Why You’re More Likely to Get Sick in Winter

Winter weather offers the perfect atmosphere for respiratory conditions – the air changes in both temperature and moisture, while we huddle together indoors to ride it out. Here’s what’s happening beneath the surface:

  • Cold air hinders normal body functions: Our bodies have internal processes in place to keep us safe. But those processes don’t always work as well in the cold. For example, hairs that line your respiratory tract filter out debris and bacteria, but don’t work well in below-freezing temps.
  • Cold air triggers breathing issues: Changes in weather and temperatures can inflame airways and trigger asthma. Just breathing in cold, dry air can cause muscle spasms and irritate airway linings.
  • Cold air causes us to make more mucus: To combat cold winter air, our bodies increase mucus production in our noses and sinuses (think drippy nose). But any time mucus becomes stagnant (doesn’t move), it’s a breeding ground for infection.
  • Viruses spread more easily indoors: Bacteria and viruses spread more easily when someone sneezes or coughs, especially in enclosed rooms with poor air circulation. To make matters worse, your increased mucus production in the winter makes you more likely to sneeze and cough.

Who Is at Risk for Winter Infections?

Anyone can pick up a virus and everyone is more prone to getting sick in the colder weather. But some groups of people are more likely to develop a severe illness:

  • Elderly people, since age affects the body’s immune system and ability to heal
  • People with asthma, for whom cold weather may trigger an attack
  • People with chronic conditions, especially heart and lung issues

Most Common Winter Health Issues

Our bodies endure many small changes during the winter season, including dry skin, chapped lips and mild dehydration. But there are some health issues that PCPs see repeatedly through the winter months. Those include:

  • Asthma: Trouble breathing and repeat asthma attacks are often triggered by cold air or an unrelated upper respiratory infection.
  • Mental health issues: The decrease in sunlight and increase in isolation (due to weather or illness) can bring on anxiety or depression. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects about 5% of the population.
  • Upper respiratory infections: The most common infections treated in adults each winter are the common cold, flu, sinusitis and bronchitis. Kids most often develop strep throat, ear infections and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).
  • Upper respiratory symptoms: Many people deal with respiratory symptoms, like post-nasal drip and cough) that are unrelated to an infection. The symptoms are typically brought on by weather changes.

Winter Health Tips to Avoid Illness

Taking a few small steps during the winter months may be enough to help you stay healthy:

  • Adjust your asthma medication (with your PCPs guidance) especially if you are prone to cold weather triggers.
  • Clean humidifiers regularly to avoid mold and other allergy and asthma triggers.
  • Consider your vitamin D intake and talk to your PCP about taking a supplement or correcting a deficiency.
  • Make sure you are up to date on vaccinations, especially for the flu and COVID-19
  • Stay hydrated to decrease mucus production.
  • Take care of your mental health by exposing yourself to morning sunlight or artificial light and keeping up social contact either in-person or virtually.

When to See a Doctor for a Winter Illness

While some winter health issues can be treated with rest and over-the-counter medication, it’s important to seek medical help if you have:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever of 103F or higher
  • Symptoms that are interfering with your daily life

If you have any concerning symptoms this winter, schedule an appointment with your PCP. If you do not have a PCP, we welcome you make an appointment with a provider at any of our Primary Care locations.

Zain Sultan MD

View Comments

  • Thank you. The explanations about the impact of cold air on the lungs and upper respiratory system -- specifically breathing and mucus production -- are very helpful.

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Zain Sultan MD

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