It may seem like superstition, but when your mother told you to bundle up and stay warm to keep from catching a cold, she – knowingly or not- actually had a scientific basis for her fears. Though dismissed by many as nonsense, a lower body temperature actually does result in an increased chance of catching the common cold, as recently discovered by a team of scientists at Yale University.
The Cold Virus
The virus responsible for the infection known to most as the common cold is called the rhinovirus. Not only is it a nuisance, but it is also one of the most complicated and variable viruses in the world, each strand being drastically different from the last, which is one of the reasons that it is so hard to create a vaccination against the disease as scientists can do with the flu. In fact, roughly one out of five people carry the virus in the tissues of their nasal passage at any one time, but for the most part our bodies are adept at fighting against the virus before it can make us sick. That is to say, unless our bodies reach temperatures lower than their usual 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius).
Although it has been known since the 1960s that the virus replicates most efficiently at temperatures just below core body levels (at about 91-95 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists at Yale found that this is more due to a weakening of the body’s immune system that results from being cold.
Our Body’s Response to the Common Cold
When the body’s core temperature reaches these levels, three things happen to its ability to ward off viruses. Firstly, the molecules that detect viruses inside cells become less sensitive, and less effective at telling the cell to produce interferon, a virus-fighting protein. Secondly, the genes that produce interferon become less active, so there are lower amounts of the protein available to combat the rhinovirus. Finally, other proteins that specialize in attacking virus genes, blocking the release of the virus to other cells and killing those cells that are infected are also inhibited, allowing for the cold to spread more easily throughout the virus.
When Yale’s scientists introduced the rhinovirus to mice that had genetic deficiencies in their immune system that inhibited the very same sensors required for the release of interferon and other proteins, they found that the virus reproduced at higher levels even in warm temperatures, going to show that colder temperatures lower our ability to keep such viruses as the rhinovirus at bay, rather than directly bolstering the reproductive powers of the virus itself.
Regardless, a colder body temperature does in fact increase the risk of succumbing to the common cold, so next time you go outside this fall, remember your mother’s advice and stay warm- it may do more to prevent catching the cold than you might have believed.
For More Information:
- Can Being Cold Really Make You Sick? Popular Science (Oct 2016)
- Cold virus replicated better at cold temperatures– Science Daily (January 2015)
- Mom was right: you’ll catch a cold from being cold– Discover magazine (January 2015)
- Woman sneezing (thumbnail): By AnA oMeLeTe from Faro, Portugal (What happens after a Cold) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Rhinovirus: Wikimedia Commons
Devin Windelspecht – Devin is a junior at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations. Devin is responsible for background work on many of the articles on the site, as well as some science writing.