03 June 2007

You're Still Not Going To Believe It

Wonder Quest (April Holladay, USAToday, November 26, 2004)
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)

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."

Further reading:

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.
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.

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.)


pj said...

I've believed this since childhood, and therefore find the scientific evidence (confirming my prejudice) entirely persuasive.

I am more extreme than you, however, in that I think exposing people to cold is healthful. It triggers mitogenesis in subcutaneous adipocytes, for instance, which has positive metabolic and health effects. Therefore, I sometimes wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts in winter.

Bobby C said...

From your reporting I suspect the studies involved infecting people at such a high dose that most people susceptible to that strain came down with a cold, weather they were then chilled or not. Hence there was no significant difference.

A recent study has found that “it is when people are chilled that a sub-clinical infection or symptom-free infection is converted into a common cold with symptoms”.
See: http://www.cnn.com/2005/HEALTH/11/14/cold.chill/index.html

"simply pointing to the uncontradicted scientific evidence isn't going to convince anyone" which in this case was a good thing. Science gets it wrong sometimes. Arguably it is only science if it can do so.

At the least, 'evidence' can be subject to multiple interpretations. It is for your interpretation of 'evidence'that I regularly read your blog. You are normally perceptive. But on this issue you are probably wrong.

Anonymous said...

And aren't we confusing the catching of a cold virus with the severity of it and time it takes to recover?

Something is wrong with these studies in isolation. I've seen studies that suggest it doesn't much matter what kids eat as long as they get enough basic nutrition, and I believe them more or less. Exercise is good, but a kid who spends a lot of time in winter in a hockey dressing room or swimming pool can expect to get quite sick once or twice. I've seen other studies that suggest most kids magically get the sleep they need, so don't worry about set bedtimes. Just about every incident of traditional fussy maternal care can be kyboshed in isolation. But no one can convince me that a kid who just eats junk, gets no exercise, is underdressed in cold, late-autumn rains and goes to bed when he wants is generally as resistant as everyone else.

David said...

Bobby: Thanks for those links. The Eccles study is certainly suggestive, but is not dispositive.

Bret said...

Fortunately, I think I've just about had all 200 colds now so I don't get colds very often any more.