Where does the idea that being cold will lead to a cold come from?
January 28, 2020 12:39 AM   Subscribe

In Chinese culture (and probably others), there is a strong belief that cold things (cold water, cold air, cold anything) will give you a cold, like, immediately. I have some questions around this belief.

So, I currently live in China. A recurrent theme is this idea that exposure to cold things will somehow instantaneously lead to getting a cold. This is not uniquely Chinese, but the sheer insistence of people that drinking cold water or using air conditioner or whatever can be quite strong!

I'm curious as to whether there is anything supporting this belief, and where this belief originated. I realize in the case of China it might be lumped broadly under "traditional chinese medicine," but I imagine there are probably folksier origins... I guess related to that, why would getting a cold be seen as such a horrendously terrible thing?

My pet theory, which I'd love to have debunked, is that being cold weakens one's immune system...as such, back in the day, people realized that if they got cold...say, caught in the rain, they would often get sick afterwards. But I think this was likely also due to the fact that back in the day, you couldn't just go home and take a shower. If you got soaked in the wet rain, you went home to your crappy, poorly ventilated house and changed into a set of clothes if you had them and sort of just suffered in general. I can imagine getting caught in the rain when it's almost freezing out in the winter could have been a death sentence, as your house was also likely very cold and you didn't have a shower etc. Furthermore, in an age with poor medical care, an illness like the cold (especially with poor sanitation and when it's cold) could be a death sentence. Nowadays the risks are much, much more minimal, but it has sort of embedded itself in the cultural belief system--Chinese peasants had it rough for a very long time, after all. Again, pet theory -- I'm asking this question to see what the real story is.

As a random anecdote, I'm currently on self-imposed quarantine in China with my wife and in-laws. The current fear of the day should be the coronavirus...but of course, her parents believe that it's not a big deal, we're all just a bunch of worryworts, etc. But if I am hanging out without 3 layers of blankets? Dear god...I might get a cold!!! My thought is 1. the odds of getting a cold from not being sizzling warm under a billion blankets is still very low and 2. even if I do get a cold, I then...have a cold. It sucks but like...not a big deal. When I tell them this they just throw more blankets at me :P If you've ever seen a Chinese toddler waddling around in the winter it is quite a sight...

Feel free to school me on colds, and the sort of...folk anthropology of colds?
posted by wooh to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Cold causing sickness (not specifically colds, but so many diseases present with respiratory symptoms it's hard to distinguish) is embedded in a huge number of medical traditions. For much of Europe and across the Middle East into Asia it's related to underlying theories of bodily balance, whether that's humors or other forms of understanding that had the body composed of fundamental elements.

Anything that disrupted this balance - being too hot, too cold, eating too much or too little, being too sad or to angry - risked throwing your body out of balance and resulting in sickness. Notably, this isn't the discrete disease entities we know today, you haven't 'caught a cold', you've thrown your body into a messy unbalance and as a consequence it is responding by pushing the excess liquid/cold/anger out of your body via snot or coughing or burning it off with a fever.

It would be nice to think that this was somehow based on neat empirical observational evidence cloaked in justification - e.g. that people realised being cold, or immersion in cold water, was generally bad for you - but, realistically, it's probably a coincidence, or at least, no more than 'being cold isn't a great idea' writ large.
posted by AFII at 12:53 AM on January 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Cold air is less humid, and dry air is linked to airborn viruses spreading more easily.

"The real reason germs spread in the winter"
Any time we splutter with a cold, we expel a mist of particles from our nose and mouths. In moist air, these particles may remain relatively large, and drop to the floor. But in dry air, they break up into smaller pieces – eventually becoming so small that they can stay aloft for hours or days. (It’s a bit like the mist you get when you turn a hose pipe to its finest spray.) The result is that in winter, you are breathing a cocktail of dead cells, mucus and viruses from anyone and everyone who has visited the room recently.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:23 AM on January 28, 2020 [11 favorites]

I know flu is more common/worse during the winter (hence the ‘flu season’), I don’t know if the same applies to colds generally but it would make sense. From that to the idea that cold causes colds isn’t a huge leap.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:23 AM on January 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

So it's not that being cold makes you ill, but that cold weather allows illnesses to spread more easily.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:24 AM on January 28, 2020 [7 favorites]

One of the symptoms of your immune system going into overdrive when it ramps up to fight a new infection is that it grabs an outsized share of your system resources. It can lead to a struggle with thermo-regulation, where you are having difficulty keeping your temperature from dropping. Most people experience this as "Tuesday morning I suddenly just wanted to get into bed and found myself diving under the covers and I only woke up on Wednesday in the small hours with my nose all stuffed up," etc. But if you aren't lucky enough to be able to go to sleep and allow your sleeping thermo-regulation, (which is way different than your waking thermo-regulation) to take over, you may find yourself inexplicably freezing.

So if you are shivering and that second sweater doesn't seem to be helping suspect an incoming illness.

Many people have observed that they were freezing cold on Tuesday and on Wednesday or Thursday they were dead sick, and made the obvious connection that being so cold is what caused the illness.

Viruses die at higher temperatures, or instead of dying fail to achieve the conditions needed to reproduce. For this reason we get fevers. It's possible that being chilled can result in a temperature that encourages already present viruses to have large happy families with many great grand descendants.

Staying warm when you are freezing cold burns a lot of calories. Shivering seriously, as when you are outside in below zero conditions in a saturated coat can burn so many calories that you need to spend the next couple of days sleeping to recover the burn of system resources. When you get to the stage where you stop shivering and begin shuddering you need to get to warmth stat. It's the transition to body core dropping. Shivering is actually a sign that your fat stores are frantically converting to blood sugar to keep you from going into hypothermia. But it's not an effective way to burn calories for weight loss, it's too dangerous and signals the urgent need to thicken the fat layer the next time you eat.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:37 AM on January 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

It's been my experience that getting too cold (like, going outside with a light jacket when the temperature merits a serious coat), in combination with other factors, makes it more likely that I'll get sick - particularly in the winter.

I'm sure there are many studies about colds and what causes them. Per this 2015 article:

At body temperature, the cells responded with a sophisticated defense, sending out warning signals to uninfected cells around them. Those cells prepared an arsenal of antiviral proteins, which they used to destroy the rhinoviruses.

But at a relatively cool 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit, Dr. Iwasaki and her colleagues found, things changed.

The neighboring cells only managed a weak defense, allowing the rhinoviruses to invade them and multiply. This result pointed to an explanation for why rhinoviruses plague humans at low temperatures: In cool conditions, the immune system somehow falters.

posted by bunderful at 4:41 AM on January 28, 2020 [2 favorites]


Rhinovirus is more effective at multiplying and cooler body temperatures, as well the body's immune systems in the mucus membranes/airways work less effectively when cold/chilled. Cold air will reduce surface temperatures relatively quickly of the nasal passages, and moreover actual chills will be when body temperature has dropped, thus leaving more tissue than just the surface in a weakend state and prime breeding ground for rhinovirus to expand.

As for how people started to believe it, seriously, how often do you see people get sick in the winter vs. the summer? Yes, we're also spending less time outside in the winter, and thus in closer proximity to other people, but consider outdoor summer festivals - huge amounts of strangers packed together for a prime disease spreading conditions. And yet it's much more rare. So it seems fairly easy to assume it's something related to the cold.
posted by nobeagle at 6:26 AM on January 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

I guess related to that, why would getting a cold be seen as such a horrendously terrible thing?

Because you can die? If you're old, very young, or already sickly, a cold can be a thing to push you over the edge.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:12 AM on January 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not only can colds turn deadly pretty easily (especially before antibiotics -- cold -> pneumonia -> dead) but caring for someone with a cold is resource intensive and a problem for the home caretaker.

When the lady of the house nags you not to get a cold, sure it's because she loves you, but also because her life is a whole lot harder when she's got a sick kid or husband to deal with.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:27 AM on January 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

If colds were as deadly as being described here, then humanity would have been wiped out by them already. Also, antibiotics have no effect on viruses.
posted by mzurer at 7:44 AM on January 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

colds can and do lead to bacterial infections all the time, by a number of effects including impeded drainage from stuffed up tissues, and weakened immune responses from bodies weakened by viral infections.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:18 AM on January 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Perhaps a tangent, but in many rural areas the onset of winter once meant bringing livestock into your house (often, but not exclusively, on the lower floor while the humans slept above.) In cold climates this meant you (and the animals) didn’t all freeze to death. This would, to me, imply a greater chance of illness jumping from animals to humans.
posted by aramaic at 8:39 AM on January 28, 2020

Are your in-laws definitely obsessed with not being cold because of colds, or is it possible they're sometimes referring to the hot/cold balance in TCM? When I was doing fieldwork in China, one of my (Canadian) colleagues would eat a fair amount of ice cream every night (this was in the middle of summer) and my Chinese colleagues were aghast. They didn't think he was going to catch a cold but that he would have "too much cold", and that would upset the balance of his body and lead to all sorts of ailments.
posted by thebots at 8:59 AM on January 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is a humoral theory of disease (dis-ease) thing, not a germ theory of disease thing. I'm not very familiar with TCM so there may be specific factors there, but the idea that "you get sick from cold weather or ice water" is prevalent in ancient Greco-Roman medicine (Hippocrates, Galen), medieval Islamic medicine (Avicenna/Ibn Sina) as well as contemporary ayurveda. It's also pretty prevalent in Western culture pre-Pasteur as well -- I'm thinking of how Marianne Dashwood nearly dies of a rain-induced fever. Being sick meant your humors were out of whack and needed readjustment through things like bloodletting or purging. (Although the former is back in fashion now, I guess.)

The stuff about how rhinovirus and flu are more easily spread during cold weather (people huddling together, humidity affecting nasal receptivity, etc) probably contributes to some confirmation bias, but the fundamental concept is not Outsider Thing Attacks Body but rather Body Balance Gets Misaligned. Interestingly, humoral immunity is what keeps you from getting the same cold twice -- although the little buggers mutate so quickly it's kind of a wash.
posted by basalganglia at 9:53 AM on January 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To answer thebots: they care about both :) but in this case, it has specifically been about colds, not just abstract cold. "if you don't cover up you'll get a cold!" "If you don't wear a scarf you'll get a cold!" Etc
posted by wooh at 10:15 AM on January 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: And basalganglia, what you notes about humors in literature is well noted, as a big impetus for this is my experience consuming Chinese media where "someone is briefly in the rain and gets deathly ill" is not an uncommon trope.
posted by wooh at 10:17 AM on January 28, 2020

I have cold-induced asthma. Cold air constrict the bronchi, and I cough. I can explain that it's asthma, but people will continue to believe I have a cold/flu. So some conditions are affected by cold weather and reinforce the belief. For anyone else who gets this, menthol cough drops help by opening the bronchi. If it's severe, doctor and appropriate meds.

also, Eponstrical?
posted by theora55 at 10:32 AM on January 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's TCM, I think. Coldness is thought to be bad for your body overall - catching a cold is just the most immediate consequence. So the worry isn't just that you'll get a cold, it's also that you'll damage your health in the long run.
posted by airmail at 3:47 PM on January 28, 2020

Just saw your follow-up. It's also a way to express affection. Chinese people won't say "I love you", but will remind you to wear a hat.
posted by airmail at 4:04 PM on January 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Cold weather helps to spread colds and flu. It's a matter of virus transport.

1. Cold air makes noses runs. It doesn't mean you're sick. It's just a thing your body does.
2. Runny noses cause people to touch their noses and mouths and eyes.
3. Then they touch all sorts of surfaces.
4. Then they touch their faces again.
And so on.

A cold virus can live for up to a week on a surface, giving it plenty of time to spread from hand to hand to hand, and of course from hand to nose, hand to eye, hand to mouth.

It's got nothing to do with whether you're dressed warmly, nothing to do with whether you went out with wet hair, nothing to do with cold weather supposedly weakening your immune system.

That's why we are told over and over again to wash our hands frequently and thoroughly when something is going around.
posted by pracowity at 7:06 AM on January 29, 2020

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