Mom Was Right: You’ll Catch a Cold from Being Cold

By Carl Engelking | January 6, 2015 2:20 pm

cold virus

“Put on a jacket or you’ll catch a cold.”

Countless energetic children are told this every day as they zoom outside for playtime. But as kids grow up, this bit of advice is usually dismissed as an age-old, superstitious epithet. A virus, not the temperature, is what makes us sick, right? Well yes. But it turns out mom’s advice contains a kernel of truth too.

Yale researchers studying the rhinovirus — the common cold virus — have found a link between temperature and our body’s ability to fight a cold. The colder we get, the easier it is for the rhinovirus to trounce us into sniffling, sneezing defeat.

No Wonder It’s Called a Cold

When human rhinoviruses were first cultured way back in the 1960s, researchers noted that the virus replicated more efficiently in temperatures just below core body temperature. Specifically, the virus thrives when temperatures are 91 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but slows its replication when temps hit 98.6 degrees.

Roughly one in five people carry the rhinovirus at any given time in the tissues of the nasal passages. The prefix “rhin” in Greek literally means “the nose,” so the common cold is aptly named. Most of the time, our bodies win the fight against the rhinovirus, and sometimes we lose — but why?

The relationship between temperature and rhinoviruses is well established, but the link between our immune response and temperature hasn’t been studied. So, researchers set out to see if, like the rhinovirus, our immune system is also sensitive to changes in our body’s thermostat.

Turn Up The (Cough) Heat

Researchers used a mouse-adapted version of the virus and tested it on cells taken from mouse airways, such as the nose and lungs. They incubated the virus and airway cells at 91 degrees in one batch, and at 98.6 degrees in another batch. To detect the cells’ immune response researchers measured gene activation and chemical signaling within the cells.

They found that the cells stored at 98.6 degrees launched a more robust immune attack than the ones at 91 degrees. The findings, published Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that exposure to cold air might lower our bodies’ ability to fight the common cold. And while most of us can power through a cold, people with respiratory issues or impaired immune systems may have a harder time fighting off the virus.

So heed your parents’ advice and bundle up — you’ll catch a cold if you don’t.


Photo credit: Barabasa/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • Buddy199

    Somebody should spend money to study whether it’s dangerous to run with scissors or stare at the Sun.

    • garedawg

      Also, save some money to see whether swimming less than 30 minutes after eating lunch will give you a cramp and make you drown.

      • Anechidna

        Been proven that swimming soon after eating doesn’t result in drowning deaths from stomach cramps. Damn another myth bites the dust.

      • Christallin AllinChrist Johnso

        We were told 15 minutes when I was growing up.😊

  • Arun

    For quite a while the myth that cold doesn’t help contribute to the common cold was peddled. Good corrective!

    • JDanaH

      “Good corrective!”
      Except that it’s not. This study was on mouse cells, not even whole mice. That’s a far cry from actual humans.

      • CanofSand

        It was stupid to believe cold weather wasn’t a factor in the first place – which is why most continued to believe it despite what misguided “science” insisted. Yes, the virus itself causes the cold, but it’s not like thousands of years of experience in this area was a coincidence. It’s not a superstition. People who hang out in cold weather are far more likely to catch a cold. Period.

        • Missi Juergens

          Is there a scientific study to support this: people who hang out in cold weather are far more likely to catch a cold than people who don’t (during the exact same period of time) or is that from personal experience? I’m trying to decide where I stand on this. Also, could the correlation alternatively be that during the winter, we spend more time indoors hovering around each other so it’s more likely we catch each other’s germs? There’s definitely a correlation, we’re just trying to figure out the causation (besides the obvious virus).

        • someone_asdf

          You’re suggesting that the same people who believe in Religion, Creationism, Anti-Vacs, Nazism – some of which have been around for thousands of years – are correct, because many many people believe it to be true? You’re saying God exists because people believe God exists?

          And yes, the “law of gravity” CAN be false if you find inconsisted information or whatnot. For example, Someone offered evidence that gravity is curved space and not just a force – required some changes.

          That said, reading your text: you actually agree that cold does NOT transmit the cold virus, and does not affect the actual probability of being infected per per interaction. It’s only that the number of interactions increase.

          I, for one, would like to see more science done in this. Rat mucus held at a constant lower temperature does not simulate an actual human — they go indoors… exhaling warms the throat back up, etc. etc.

    • Carla Norris

      The fact remains that it’s a virus, not the temperature, that makes one sick.
      In the absence of a virus, you won’t get sick, no matter how cold the temperature.
      Wash your hands often, and use soap when you do it.

      • Arun

        The cold virus is ubiquitous. Cold air causes reduced blood circulation to membranes in the nose and throat, and helps the virus get a foothold.

        • Amy Lathrop

          Yeah, and no, because that actually plays a very minor role to core body temperature effects on virus replication in the body.

          • Arun

            Sigh. I come from the tropics to the US Northeast, and I don’t have the big nose etc., to moisten the cold dry air I breath in. I can virtually pin point when I’m going to get an infection. I’m quite sure that all the so-called research has been done with WEIRD – basically white european-descent anglo-males.

          • Amy Lathrop

            Arun, it just doesn’t work like that, dear. It simply doesn’t. I”m sorry, but you can’t make it work that way just because you want it to. Wash your hands, honey. Wash. Your. Hands.

          • Arun

            My hands are washed more than a surgeons. And it works that way, because I have rid myself of the constant set of infections by precisely addressing the problem of keeping my throat and nose warm, and not exposed to excessively cold, dry air.

  • Ron Eck

    Research had to be conducted to discern this? I thought this was common sense knowledge among biologists.

    • Vivian Li

      Not exactly “common sense”, as there are many who think/thought that cold temperatures have nothing to do with contracting the cold virus. This article debunks that widespread myth.

      • someone_asdf

        Actually, the way the article is written, they’ve got it all wrong:

        “They found that the cells stored at 98.6 degrees launched a more robust immune attack than the ones at 91 degrees.”

        The cells stored in the WARMER (98.6) temperatures launched a better attack than the cooler (91 degrees).

  • southside mike

    what’s next? you really get pneumonia if you go out with a wet head?

  • Stephen Davies

    it’s clickbait, baby, clickbait.

  • Christopher Haas

    The caption is still wrong. It’s not being overly technical by arguing that you don;t catch a cold from being cold. Rather, one catches a cold when one is exposed to the virus and when that virus beats one’s immuno-response.

    • Habfan

      Yes but being cold helps the virus defeat one’s immune response, making the caption correct.

      • Seerak

        No virus, no cold, so no it doesn’t. A predisposition is all that chill does, and a predisposition is not the fact.

        • Georce Johnson

          Nope. A cold isn’t the virus in your system, it’s the symptoms of the virus establishing an infection. You could get the virus and fight it off unless you also got chilled, thus the chill could be as much a contributing factor as contacting the virus. As someone who ONLY gets colds when I’ve been cold, I think it’s even more a factor.

          • J.J. Francesco

            I’ve gotten colds all times if year, including in the middle of the summer. Or during a tepid autumn.

    • James Kirk

      Yes, I was hoping to have one on my wife. She and her “logic”….

  • Emily Franklin

    Does this theory contradict entirely the one given years ago that dismissed the idea that cold temperatures causes us to catch a cold because the survivors of Hitler’s holocaust reported very few colds? They reported many contagious diseases but few colds.

    • Seerak

      Not really. On the one hand, it just trivially confirms that our biochemistry works best at 98.6 F, and that’s why our body maintains that temperature so precisely.

      That the rhinovirus takes advantage of cooler cells, such as those in the nose, is also true, but also trivially so – part of that virus’ survival adaptation is being equipped to invade epthelial cells in the nose. Since these tend to be cooler by design, it follows that the virus might not be so good at invading them under unusual circumstances… such as finding the epithelium at core temperature.

  • memoli

    must be caryfull

  • Overburdened_Planet

    “…researchers noted that the virus replicated more efficiently in temperatures just below core body temperature. Specifically, the virus thrives when temperatures are 91 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but slows its replication when temps hit 98.6 degrees.”

    But hypothermia begins when the core body temperature reaches 95º or lower, except how often does that happen?

    • Dave6034

      Rhinoviruses don’t live in the body core, they live in the nose, which is cooler from all the outside air passing through it.

      • Overburdened_Planet

        What an amazingly simple revelation, something that I should have realized when I asked, so thank you for your response.

        • Seerak

          While Dave6034 is correct, this demonstrates the mild sensationalism of the headline.

          It’s the chilling of the epithelial cells in the nose that might make a cold more likely to gain a foothold – the nose lining is normally below core body temperature (that 98.6 figure). If the core itself got to 91 degrees, you’ve got hella bigger problems than a cold.

          • Overburdened_Planet

            Great points!

          • Dustoff Crew Chief

            Yup, like coma and death.

      • Mdaxus

        So all you have to do is keep your nose warm during winter

  • KitchenFairy61 .

    I read the paper you mentioned Elena and it ends with this…This is not proof – in any way – that cold weather makes it more likely for you to catch a cold.
    So who is correct? I’ve never believed that getting too cold will make you sick. I have a very vague memory of an article in Discover years ago stating that getting cold has nothing to do with getting sick. In the end it takes about a week from the rhinovirus taking hold to your body’s overactive immune response which is what you’re actually feeling while you are sick. You’ll feel better in a week or so no matter what you do.

  • smartanna

    DUMB & Dumber! Does any anybody w/ an IQ above 75 thinks that a person living in Florida gets as many colds as a person living in Michigan? Holy cow!

    • Zach Winderzight

      Florida gets cold too

    • j. bob

      Apparently people in Australia get as many colds as people in Alaska.

  • FrancisChalk

    Just another example of the group think and incompetence of the so-called “medical and scientific” communities. The “medical” experts always said: “catching a cold has nothing to do with the temperature outside.” Usually spoken with a sneer. Yet, everyone else on the planet, who didn’t go to med school, seemed to understand that winter is the cold and flu season for a reason, and not just because we spend more time inside. Now some researcher decides to look at the facts that have been staring them in the face forever, and voila, temperature is a factor. Just remember this and all the other medical/scientific reversals the next time someone from the “science” community starts talking about Climate Change.

    • Seerak

      Just another example of the groupthink of anti-science types – confusing science with its reporting in popular media.

      • FrancisChalk

        Say Doctor Seerak, what do you think about the totally inverted Food Pyramid that the medical/science community is now supporting? They changed the styling of the pyramid so the total 180 on the recommended percentages of carbs vs. protein wouldn’t be so obvious, but none-the-less, it’s a total reversal on the idea of a proper diet. Now just think about this: virtually every doctor’s office in America and 100% of pediatricians and GPs (and the public schools), displayed the old USDA Food Pyramid. The one with pictures of breakfast cereals, loafs of bread, a bowl of white rice, a big bowl of pasta, etc. depicted as the category healthy people should eat most of their daily calories from. For 30+ years virtually every doctor in the country advocated this diet, all the while seeing firsthand the massive increase in obesity of their patients. Didn’t any these doctors learn in med school that carbs are quickly turned into glucose and excess glucose is turned into fat cells? Of course they did, but they mindlessly (as in groupthink) continued to advocate for a diet that is now the direct cause of our number one health/medical problem—obesity and all its offshoots. Yep, those ill-educated “anti-science types” are the problem, for sure!!!

        • Ether Doc

          The food pyramid was never based on good science. Yes groupthink is not conducive to sound reasoning. Science is the antidote to groupthink.

    • someone_asdf

      But what they’re saying is accurate.

      If you smash 1000 people in a cold room and none of those 1000 people have a cold to begin with, precisely 0 people will catch the cold.

      “They found that the cells stored at 98.6 degrees launched a more robust immune attack than the ones at 91 degrees.” From the article also seems to be contradictory to the title (unless 98.6 degrees is colder than 91 somehow). Most people’s body’s interal organs stay near 98.6 degrees, even in winter. I’d like to see a better simulation (people go in and outdoors, warm and cold fluctuations)

      Still … If 10 people have a cold out of 1000, cramming them all into the same room in the middle of summer will still infect others. Hence being cold has very little to do with the cold.

  • Mark In FLorida

    Do neither the writer nor the editor(s) know what the word epithet means? Shame.

  • Georce Johnson

    Ready for the NEXT fallacy to implode? Chocolate DOES give you zits. That’s another one wrongly relegated to the “old wive’s tale” status, but I ONLY get zits after a chocolate binge.

    It’s time we started treating scientific decrees with the same suspicion we apply to everything else our fellow flawed humans say.

    • j. bob

      Does your acne come from chocolate or from sugar and fat?

  • omar


  • omar

    i also wanna know why do we get sick from flu shots

    • Domenico

      You may feel sick after the flu but only temporarily, because your body thinks it’s the real flue when it’s just the shell without the flu DNA in the core. So your body reacts by developing antibodies but when the injected vaccine’s phony flue cells don’t replicate, you start to feel better and are resistant to that flu bug or bugs covered by the vaccine.

  • Ether Doc

    Interesting but this single in vitro study not done in humans isn’t sufficient to change my mind. Cold humans without contact with other humans don’t catch colds.

  • Pi Threepointonefour

    Oh please. People who are constantly exposed to the cold actually have a stronger immune system, and if your core body temperature is at 91, congratulations, you have hypothermia, and the common cold. If you are 91 degrees, you won’t notice a cold.

    • Dustoff Crew Chief

      I was thinking that myself, “gee, this person is so hypothermic that their brain has ceased to function normally, they’re comatose, and will probably die within the next hour or two, they should really start worrying about catching that cold.”

  • Dustoff Crew Chief

    I question the validity of this study, altogether. It seems the author, and those performing the study, completely ignored the fact that the average temperature of the nose (where the rhinovirus is found) is around 89°F. So, on an average warm day the nose is already below the temperatures this study “supposedly” shows as putting one at risk for a cold (91-95°F).

  • Krys

    So really it’s nothing to do with wrapping up and wearing a coat. It’s actually entirely about the temperature of the air going into your nose?

  • Dustón McCreary

    Totally misleading. Cold air aids the virus, but it is not the virus.

  • Elisebri

    Ok, does anyone realize that 91 degrees is not compatible with life without artificial life support? So obviously, if your body temp drops even down to 95 or 96 degrees, yes, you will definitely become immune compromised. You will not get that cold just playing outside unless you are stranded and become hypothermic. We’re talking core body temp, people!

  • Domenico

    Damp and cold air makes it harder to fight a cold virus, so I think that’s the point. It affects your immune system or response.

    • superpleb

      yes -that is the point – damp and cold air

  • Fecal Cabesa

    The cold doesn’t really cause hypothermia. Nobody cover up when it’s cold. It’s all untrue!

  • Vivian Li

    To clear up some of the comments below, the article doesn’t claim that being cold *causes* you to come down with a cold – it only states that cold temperatures may contribute to your catching it (whether it be because cold temperatures impair your immune system, or that the virus becomes stronger in cold temperatures).

    This could explain why colds most often happen in the winter months. Also, anecdotally, every time I’ve been subjected to freezing temperatures for a prolonged amount of time (like a few days ago), I often end up with a cold/bronchitis. I am typing this from my bed, sick as a dog…

    • someone_asdf

      It just means you touched someone or something that had the cold virus or it managed to get into your mucus membranes. People being leaky with runny noses might increase the chance, but properly washing your hands and avoiding mucus contact will prevent the cold.

      Next time, make sure to wash your hands every time, and perhaps use a surgical mask when indoors. You won’t catch a cold.


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