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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Exposure to the cold causes illness?

This winter has been colder for a longer period of time then I remember since I moved to the southland 22 years ago. Last year we were in for a rude awakening having moved from Houston all the way up north to Atlanta. We expected another mild winter like we had become used to and instead had to run to the store for coats for the kids and us.

This year we have seen 5 inches accumulation of snow at the Atlanta Hartsfield airport since November. This was over three snowstorms but for us it is a lot... my parents have has several nor'easters dump 1 - 2 feet of snow on them each storm in New Jersey so we really don't have anything to complain about.

The thing is that for the eastern 2/3rds of the US it has been cold this year.

So what if the teenager refuses to wear a coat in the morning when the temperatures are in the upper 20's or low 30's? Looking at the majority of the teens at the high school, very few wear jackets or coats and some even show up in short sleeves.

We had a bout of poetic justice last week in our home. The teenager refused to wear a jacket all week. Morning lows ranged in the upper 20's with highs only in the 40's. Sure enough, by Friday he had a sore throat and from Saturday through Tuesday he laid in bed sleeping with a sore throat and no energy missing Church and two days of school.

Now let me state right up front that I understand that colds are caused by viruses and not from cold weather. I also understand that exposure to the cold is dangerous and can be damaging to the body. Unfortunately, it seems to me that many people, especially teens, interpret the fact that colds are caused by viruses to mean that they do not need to protect themselves from the cold if they plan to be out for fairly short durations or if they are going to be active (as in a basketball pickup game).

Many experts point out that in cold weather it is important to wear layers of clothing and a hat to prevent heat loss. The Ohio State University points out the following with regard to exposure to cold:

Cold Weather Exposure (National Ag Safety Database)

Exposure to cold can lead to serious illness, so it is important to be aware of the temperature and how to protect yourself against it. Cold exposure can occur in weather that is not freezing. Wind, humidity and moisture remove body heat, which can eventually lead to hypothermia. The cold primarily affects the body's extremities. Hands and feet are further away the body core and have less blood flow. However, man can deal with low temperatures much better than high temperatures by just adding clothing.

Cold exposure prevention:

  • Wear several layers of loose clothing. Layering provides better insulation. Layers can also be removed if you become too hot.

  • Tight clothing reduces blood circulation. Warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities.

  • When choosing clothing, be aware that some clothing may restrict movement resulting in a hazardous situation.

  • Boots should be waterproof and insulated.

  • By wearing a hat, you will keep your whole body warmer. It reduces the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.

  • Make sure to protect the ears, face, hands and feet in extremely cold weather.

  • Move into warm locations periodically. Limit the amount of time outside on extremely cold days.

  • Carry cold weather gear, such as extra socks, gloves, hats, jacket, blankets, a change of clothes and a thermos of hot liquid.

  • Include a thermometer and chemical hot packs in your first aid kit.

  • When working, avoid touching cold metal surfaces with bare skin.
These guidelines need to be adapted and used based on the amount of time that is to be spent outside and the temperatures. Below 40 F (4C) certainly qualifies as cold.

If cold doesn't cause illness, then why is cold weather associated with sickness? The answer may lie in hypothermia. Hypothermia is when the core body temperature drops below 95 F (or 35 C). When the temperature outside is colder than normal body temperature, the body works to produce heat to stay warm. Typically this is a balanced process. As the temperature outside decreases, the body has to work harder to stay warm.

Heat transfer between the body and the environment around it occurs any time there is a temperature difference. This is most obvious in cold water. Hypothermia can set in within minutes in 40 degree water due to the high amount of heat transfer taking place. In air the process still occurs, just at a slower rate. (Chart courtesy of

Wearing appropriate clothing for the weather conditions reduces the stress on your body to stay warm. Being under dressed increases the stress because the body has to work harder to stay warm. Even a 15 minute walk from the bus stop several days in a row will cause stress the body.

Stress has been shown to reduce the body's resistance to viruses.

So my gripe is that while you are a teenager, when it is cold out wear your coat. When you turn 18, if you want to show how tough you are then go right ahead. Wear short sleeves and tell me how wrong I am or get pneumonia. By then it's not my problem anymore. Extreme cold temperatures can cause death. Very cold temperatures have an effect on heath. Anything approaching or below the freezing point of water is very cold whether you want it to be or not.

2010 Atlantic Hurricanes (courtesy of

NOAA Gulf of Mexico Radar (courtesy of

NOAA West Atlantic & Caribbean Radar (courtesy of

NOAA East Atlantic Radar (courtesy of