Q: I know that viruses spread colds but can getting cold or wet somehow make a person more vulnerable to the cold virus? (Doug, Someplace, World)If a cold virus gets into your system, you're going to get sick. It doesn't matter if you're wet or dry, or whether you're cold or hot.
A: Another myth bites the dust — however reasonable it seems. No. People don't become more vulnerable to catching a cold because they got cold or wet. We've looked into this one thoroughly and the myth isn't true (unless, of course, the cold is so intense that it destroys the body's defenses, such as freezing to death).
In 1958, H.F. Dowling exposed 400 volunteers to cold viruses. The volunteers experienced different temperatures and dress protection — some shivering in extreme cold of 10°F (-12°C) but wearing heavy coats, others chilly in 60°F (16°C) temperature wearing only underwear, and still others sweltering in 80°F (27°C) temperatures. They all, however, caught colds at "about the same rate."
Ten years later, R. G. Douglas, Jr. experimented in a similar fashion with inmates at a Texas prison.
Again, no difference. The men caught colds at about the same frequency and the resulting colds were about equally severe whether or not the inmates had endured cold and no matter how they were dressed.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) also has funded studies and found no correlation between getting chilled or overheated and catching a cold. NIAID has found no relationship with exercise, diet, or enlarged tonsils or adenoids either. They have found that psychological stress, allergic disorders affecting the nasal passages or the throat, and menstrual cycles can make a person susceptible to colds.
By the way, colds spread through touching infectious surfaces or inhaling viruses. Cold viruses can survive for about three hours outside the nasal passages. So, to prevent catching colds, we can:
• most effective: wash our hands
• also effective but much more difficult: don't touch our noses, mouths, or eyes.
Finally, over 200 viruses cause the common cold says NIAID. "Prospects for a cold vaccine are dim."
•Myths of the common cold by Drs. Jack M. Gwaltney and Federick G. Hayden
•Cold treatment and information by Drs. Gwaltney and Haden
•NAID, National Institute of Health: The common cold fact sheet
•Dowling, H.F. 1958. Transmission of the common cold to volunteers under controlled conditions. Am J of Hygiene 68:659-65.
•Douglas RG Jr, Lindgren KM, Couch RB. 1968. Exposure to cold environment and rhinovirus common cold: Failure to demonstrate effect. N Engl J Med 279:742-7.
But I've had this conversation enough times to know that simply pointing to the uncontradicted scientific evidence [no longer uncontradicted -- see the comments] isn't going to convince anyone. (Of course, I make my kids bundle up when they go out in the cold just like anyone else.)