Cold Air and Colds

My son is four months old. The baby sitter takes the kids outside. It’s rather cold and windy here in Japan. Is it dangerous to my son’s lungs or respiratory system to inhale cold air?
Japan

Cold Air and Colds

Dr. Greene`s Answer:

For generations, parental wisdom has held that cold air is not good for children’s respiratory systems. In particular, cold air has been thought to cause colds (thus the name). Earlier medical traditions have tended to agree with folk wisdom. Over the last fifteen years or so, the prevailing medical opinion has shifted to a different point of view. The more recent thinking is that cold air does not cause colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, or other respiratory infections. Scientifically designed experiments have been carried out to prove the theory that cold temperatures do not cause the common cold.

Studies conducted at the University of Virginia made the news when healthy adult volunteers cavorted in the snow with few clothes on and were found no more likely to catch respiratory infections than their companions indoors. Subsequently, at McMurdo Station, a US research base in Antarctica, several important studies have been carried out. (What better place to study the effect of cold temperature than Antarctica?) People in isolation at this base tended to get no colds at all — unless visitors came from the outside. Specific viruses that the visitors brought to the station worked their way through the research compound at a rather leisurely pace, approximating the rate of cold acquisition in other climates. This demonstrated that cold temperature itself does not cause colds.

The scientific studies are rather convincing, but let’s consider other known impacts of cold air on the respiratory system. First, cold air affects an important defense mechanism — mucus transport. The entire respiratory system is coated with a very thin layer of mucus called the mucus blanket, which rests on tiny hairs called cilia. This mucus blanket traps particles and organisms before they can reach the lungs. This constantly moving blanket acts as a conveyer belt to move the particles out of the respiratory system. Proper action of the mucociliary blanket depends on the mucus having the appropriate mixture of stickiness (to catch the particles) and fluidity (to move the particles up and out). When this is altered by dry air, irritating chemicals, cigarette smoke, or any other factor, the respiratory system becomes more susceptible to infection. Cold air stimulates an increase in mucus production, but like other substances, mucus becomes thicker in colder temperatures. Thus, inhaled particles are cleared less easily when a person breathes cold air.

The second area where cold air impacts respiratory health is in the nose. The nose is a remarkable organ designed to condition inhaled air in order to protect the delicate lung tissues. Whether the inhaled air has a relative humidity of one percent or ninety percent, the nose adds or extracts moisture so that air reaching the lungs has a constant relative humidity of about 75%. The same is true of temperature. When breathing through the nose, one may breathe in air at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but within a quarter of a second the air temperature is quickly brought to 98.6 degrees. Many tiny blood vessels are used to affect a temperature exchange. When a person breathes cold air, the tissues lining the nose swell as the capillaries dilate, bringing warm blood to heat the cool air. Excess blood in the nose is the cause of nasal congestion (nasal congestion is backed up blood, not increased mucus). In addition to the congestion, the mucus normally present in the nose becomes increased and thicker. Cold air, by itself, can produce nasal congestion and stuffiness, which again make it more difficult for the body to remove inhaled viruses and bacteria.

The third area of impact is in the lungs themselves. If cold air reaches the lungs, the lungs respond by releasing histamine. In people with sensitive airways or asthma, this causes wheezing. In fact, many theorists believe exercise-induced asthma is actually triggered by room-temperature air reaching the lungs in large quantity due to mouth breathing, rather than directly from exercise itself.

Piecing the available evidence together, I draw a different conclusion than either traditional wisdom or current medical opinion — 1) It is clear that in order to catch a respiratory infection of any type, one must be exposed to the causative organism; 2) If exposed, however, it is more likely that an individual will become sick if he or she has been breathing cold air.

With this in mind, here are some ways to minimize the risk of getting a cold:

  • For those who must be outside in the cold, breathe through the nose to prevent the cool air from getting to the lungs.
  • Drink large amounts of fluids — this can noticeably thin the mucus and make the mucociliary clearance more effective.
  • Wash one’s hands frequently, which will reduce the number of organisms available to enter the mouth and nose.
  • If appropriate, decrease contact with sick children and adults to decrease exposure to respiratory organisms.

 
As is often the case, when parents and scientists tend to disagree, both sides have important parts of the truth. In synthesizing the two views, a more accurate view emerges.

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

  1. beranic franc

    hi, what about this unusual problem ? I am sensitive to a cold air , which gives me a fever, mostly in summer when temperatures are high, but in winter with freezing temperatures I have no problem ? So there is no logic, no pulmonaryor noraspiratoty
    problems

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  2. Mama

    I work in an shared office. So we have to keep the temp at a certain temperature because no one can agree on a stable temperature.. My desk is directly across from my co-worker who has a fan constantly blowing my direction all day! I am freezing. I turn the air up, and he turns it down. Its a back and forth temperature all day. Now I have been diagnosed with pneumonia; which I am never a sickly person. I have been asking that the fan be turned to a low setting and away from me, but that has not happened. I am wearing turtle necks all year round to keep myself warm from the air that flows over me. I was also hospitalized for this cause; back to work in the same situation again; and was advised by someone that the constant blowing of the fan did not cause this; also keep in mind that my shared office space has had bronchitis, colds, and had been coughing, sneezing and not covering the face or nose, while the fan has been blowing. Can someone share some light on this please?

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    • Mama,

      First, let me start by reminding readers that I am not a doctor. These are just my opinions.

      In large companies in the US you may have help through the HR department. If you go to that level and state your case, they may be able to move your desk to the furthest point in the office away from the fan. In small companies, you may have to talk with the boss. In either case I suggest that you don’t blame anyone in the office, but simply say you understand everyone is different. Clearly your co-worker is too warm and therefore uses a fan. You on the other hand are too cold and all the efforts you’re making to stay warm are not enough for you to be comfortable — in fact, you’re miserable and need their help. Can they find a way to help both of you be comfortable and work more efficiently?

      If that fails, it may be time to start looking for other employment ;(

      @MsGreene

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  3. whitney

    I work in an shared office. So we have to keep the temp at a certain temperature because no one can agree on a stable temperature.. My desk is right under the vent, so I get the constant flow of cold air every 7mins(yes I timed it) and I am freezing. I turn the air up, and they turn it down. Its a back and forth temperature all day. I have been diagnosed with acute bronchitis and sinusitis. I have been asking that they stop one of the vents that flows over me so that I don’t have to breathe it in constantly. Can this cause me to have reoccurring bronchitis and sinusitis?

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  4. Dora Ott

    My 14 month grandson has a temperature, runny nose and is coughing. His parents are going shopping and out to eat and are taking him with them. Shouldn’t he stay inside?

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    • Dora Ott

      It is 1 degree out with a windchill advisory.

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    • Mom

      Not your child, not your decision to make.

      Leave parenting to parents.

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  5. Art

    I have had asthma for many years. I was a teacher and often at times if I had to speak a lot in class I would get a sinus infection if a room was hot and I opened the windows and it was cooler outside. Drafts seemed to bother me and set me off.

    Last week I visited my brother & his family for the holidays. His home became very warm and windows were opened in the living room, dining room & kitchen. I think the drafts bothered me again as the next day I had a very bad asthma attack and had to go to the emergency room for 3 nebulizer treatments, intravenous prednisone and a chest x-ray. Luckily my chest wasn’t too bad but I am still after 8 days not fully normal. I am wheezing slightly. I did see my allergist and a nebulizer has been ordered which might arrive today.

    Do drafts possibly trigger these things off?

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  6. Vanessa

    I live in the desert and it often gets very cold at night. I know I’m breathing in cold air. I would wake up with a itchy throat and a crackly ear. What does this mean???

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  7. Jean

    I am outside in the cool autumn air most days. , so get plenty of fresh air. When me daughter opens the car window half way, so the cold air blows on me, Even though I’m wearing a coat, I feel very cold, and always end up with flu like symptoms (aching arms, watery eyes, sneezing, running nose, chest congestion, and coughing). I’ve had a flu shot.. My daughter insists the cold air blowing on me could not cause my symptoms. Is this correct?

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  8. sara

    Hi Doctor,

    Would you be able to tell me where you have found the University of Virginia research so I could have a look at it. It for my university work, I would be very thankful if you could help me.

    Kind regards

    Sara

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  9. Fansleeper

    I started sleeping near a floor fan running all night, and now I dont get any of the same cool air/draft problems I did before, the human body adapts, take advantage of it!!

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  10. michael

    Okay my names mike im 34 years old well last nite i had the ac on for a couple hours n went to bed with the fan blowing on me but the ac off i woke up with my left side of my chest hurting bad it hurt wen i breath in n when i place a hand on my left side of my chest and apply a little pressure it hurts bad jus wondering if anybody can tell me what this is and is there ways i can treat it from home or what should i do?? Thank u and ur answer would be really appreciated

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    • Don’t mess around with chest pain. Call a doctor or an ambulance. If you over react, that isn’t a problem. If you don’t act soon enough, you may miss a heart attack.

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  11. Jonah&Aloha

    I have a 15 month old and he has running nose, a cough and is wheezing. I have air conditioning in my room and is wondering if it should stay off while he is sick? Right now in Hawaii it is summer time so it is kind of humid. I am a very paranoid mother so just trying to do things that will comfort him at night when he sleeps. Please I hope someone knows. Thanks.

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    • There are two kinds of air conditioners — Ones that have variable air flow and keep a constant temperature and those that turn off as soon as the desired temperature is reached, then click back on when the thermostat determines the room is no longer at the desired temperature. In my experience, the second kind blows cold air out very forcibly. Personally, when I’m in a room with that kind of air conditioner, I become congested. For your child, it would be smart to make sure the air isn’t blowing directly on him. Do you have a way of directing the air or moving the baby so he isn’t directly under the air flow?

      NOTE: I’m not a doctor. I am a mom.

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  12. Lisa saber

    My son is 11 yrs old and every time we have cold spells in south Florida he starts coughing throughout the whole day. He does not have asthma, nor the common cold, just violent dry coughing without phlegm production. I know the culprit is sudden cool air, but why? I am getting winded from hitting every brick wall to uncover this mystery. Can you please clue me in? I’m desperate and your wealth of knowledge will vastly be appreciated.

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    • Tonya

      If it is just a dry cough due to a cool environment then may be try something warm to soothe his dry throat like hot tea with honey. May be even try a handheld warm mist humidifier. Possibly the humidified heat will add moisture to his lungs to help.

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  13. Jean

    I have a 79 year old mother and she was diagnosed with or rather started to show signs of pneumonia(from the results of her X-ray) but the doctors and nurses( she was in the hospital due to vagovasal attack)treated her pneumonia by giving antibiotic through IV…and I have not follow up with her doctor yet due to cold weather,she was out from the hospital a week ago..my concern is,is it okay to give her a shower or giving her a bath during the day coz my sister was so worried that her pneumonia might go back? And she won’t let me bring her outside coz of the weather (cold air)

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  14. Saikeerthi Kumar

    Can Stress & COOL Air can affect Person with HYPERTHERMIA :: Pls Suggest :: As my Brother is Suffering with these Problem

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  15. Christine

    Hi,
    Thank you so much for this info. I know from experience that when I have a chest infection, I do much better if I stay warm and breathe in warm air. I have just come from a hospital where the nurses told me that I was wrong and that it doesn’t matter if my Dad, who has pneumonia, breathes in cold air.

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  16. Hi GTD,

    Great question!

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  17. GTD Enterprises

    I spent an hour or two outside shoveling heavy wet snow. Ended up with a horrid cough less than an hour later. Now I have a slight fever and am achy. This happened before. I never knew breathing in cold air could cause this.

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    • Wes

      I agree with DR Green. I’m not a doctor. I’m 52 years old. I speak from personal experience and much reading on the subject. My opinion is that cold air does not cause you to be sick unless you already have some type of lung problem. If you have a lung infection weather you know it or not then breathing cold air can make it much worse weather it’s inside or outside air. Moving air also makes it worse like being outside or using a fan inside. I suspect you already had the infection then getting out in the cold made it much worse.

      Recently I had a bronchial virus that got better and worse twice over a three week period. I got the virus from my daughter when she started her first two days of preschool. I felt I was almost completely over it. I took the kids out in the cold night air to play with a Christmas gift. We ran around and played for 30 minutes or so. The next morning I woke and was very congested again, coughing and the low grade fever was back. No one else was sick. I felt 70% better the next day but the recurrence has caused the lung infection to linger. This has been my consistent experience over the years.

      I have found that breathing cold air makes lung infections worse and breathing warm moist air makes an improvement. Moving cool air is the worst. Taking a hot shower helps. I block the cracks in the door and turn my bathroom into a steam-room. I shower and stay in their for awhile. It breaks up the mucus and helps me to cough it up. Also do not use cough syrup unless it contains an expectorant. Suppressing the cough just keeps the mucus and infection in your lungs. Drinking a lot of water helps. Stay away from things like coffee and antihistamines that might dehydrate you. Rest, warm air, steam and lots of water will help a lot with congestion.

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      • Helen

        I agree with Wes, I have experienced the same thing recently with a sinus infection. I can start feeling better, but every time I go out in the cold air, it gets worse again (even though I am otherwise wrapped up). It’s really interesting to see how different people react differently to temperature. My mother loves the cold air, and sleeps with the window open through winter, whereas I can’t stand a draft. It is really making me reconsider living in a place with a cooler climate, both for myself and my daughter who has cystic fibrosis (so prone to chronic lung infections). I feel that it is detrimental that people keep saying: ‘being cold doesn’t cause a cold’, when clearly it is still a major contributing factor.

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