Cover your nose – you’ll catch a cold

As the first cold weekend hits the NY area, people are bundling up to ward off the elements.  In the back of their minds, I wonder if they are hearing their mothers telling them they’ll catch a cold if they go outside without a hat. Truth of the matter is you may be better off wearing a scarf to cover your nose rather than a hat.

What causes colds?

Colds are caused by viruses – over 200 subtypes.  The most common belong to a family called Rhinovirus. These viruses take root in our noses and throats and cause infection.  The body’s immune system fights the viruses, and eventually you recover.  But between infection and recovery is fever, aches, cough and phlegm that make the world shun you and make you feel miserable.  So how do we prevent colds?
For generations, parents, grandparents and know-it-all neighbors have admonished those under dressed to bundle up or they will catch a cold.  However, a virus infects you when it attaches to the membranes in your nose or throat.  A hat doesn’t change that.  Why do we see more colds during the winter months?
It turns out that the Rhinovirus reproduces better at slightly below body temperature – as occurs when you breathe in cold air through your nose lowering the temperature in your nose. Being cold releases causes an adrenaline release in the system – which acts as a decongestant.  While making it easier to breathe, it also decreases the delivery of immune cells to the cold area, and drier membranes in the nose are more likely to crack, making it easier for the virus to get in. In addition, your immune cells do not fight as well at colder temperatures – allowing the Rhinovirus to take hold and multiply – and you catch a cold.

What can you do?

Colds are spread more from touch than breathing in virus particles.  We shake hands or touch something someone sneezed on, then wipe our noses, mouths, eyes, etc.  The best defense is to wash your hands.  Other prevention measures:
  • wipe down shared items in the office and home – computers, phones, tables, etc
  • surgical mask if you are sick (keeps you from spreading infectious particles)
  • if you have a weakened immune system due to medication or other condition consider wearing a surgical mask
  • keep your mouth and nose warm
  • and did I mention wash your hands?!
So maybe breathing through your hat instead of putting it on your head will prevent a cold!