What is it about wintertime that turns our immune systems to mush? We’re not quite at the official start of winter (that’s December 21st, fact fans!), but the common cold is already spreading like the bubonic plague. In this edition of It’s Not a Stupid Question, primary care physician Dr. Marc Leavey explains that the cold weather isn’t what’s making us sick—it’s what we do when the temperature drops.
When it starts to get cold outside, we tend to hang out indoors—in our homes, in shopping malls, in coffee shops—which, as Leavey explains, is like sheep ready for the slaughter as far as germs are concerned. “When you’re cooped up inside with a group of people who may have some kind of bug, and they proceed to cough, sneeze or even hand you a glass of wine, there’s nowhere for those germs to go except for into your system.” Add in the fact that closing the windows and turning up the heat—both things we do during the winter—recirculates those germs throughout that house, and you’ll be down with the sickness in no time.
Leavey adds that while trains and airplanes have that same close quarters affect, travel itself adds fuel to the fire. “When you travel to a new location [as we are wont to do during the holidays], it’s likely that you’ll come in contact with germs that your immune system hasn’t been previously exposed to, which makes it even more likely that you’ll get sick.” That’s because our immune systems develop a certain amount of preparedness against germs they’ve been exposed to, while they have to fight extra hard to keep unknown bugs at bay.
Lastly, if your holiday travel is taking you to a gathering of family or friends, Leavey warns that handshakes and hugs—we all know just how many of those go around at reunions—are a common transmitter of the common cold and the flu. “If someone coughs in their hand and you shake it, you stand a better chance of getting that bug.” That’s why, above all else, he recommends washing your hands before you eat, or—at the very least—using hand sanitizer regularly.