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Baby, It's Cold Outside

It's February and much of the country is experiencing very cold weather. It's a fact of life that as cops we are out in the weather most of our tour of duty. I have vivid memories of foot patrol, standing at a stationary post for an entire tour, directing traffic, and chasing suspects in the snow and frigid temperatures on the streets of Chicago. Some folks will tell you, I don't do cold weather. Yeah, I know. That heater in the car keeps you nice and toasty, but at some point you have to get out and do something. I've also heard talk that being exposed to cold weather will give you the flu, and that a nice shot of Jim Beam will warm you quicker than standing in front of a fireplace. What about some of these claims; fact or fiction? Let's explore some myths about cold weather.

Myth #1: Alcohol will keep you warm.
It might feel warm going down, but that's about the extent of the warmth you'll feel. Alcohol actually forces the blood to the skin's surface creating momentary warmth. But what is actually happening is that your blood vessels dilate, causing you to lose heat at a much faster rate. In addition, drinking alcohol to stay warm inhibits the shivering process which serves to generate extra body heat. Shivering is the body's attempt to stave off hypothermia when the body's core temperature begins to drop. The muscles surrounding the vital organs begin to shake in an attempt to create warmth by expending energy (burning calories creates heat). Save that cocktail for when you're relaxing in front of the fireplace.

Myth #2: Dress warm to avoid catching colds and flu.
Your mother has probably said this to you more times than you care to remember, but the fact is that cold weather will not cause you to catch a cold. The truth is that colds and flu come from viruses, not cold weather. A study of 250 medical students at the Naval Health Research Center debunked this myth. Researchers immersed the students in cold water until their body temperatures dropped to 95 degrees, at which point hypothermia begins. While some subjects became dehydrated, none of them caught colds or viruses. But out of respect for your mother, it was determined that the body's defenses become lower when the body is stressed as in the case of being exposed to cold for too long. So mom is partially correct. Stay warm to keep your defense strong.

So why is it that so many people become ill with colds in the winter? It's because we spend much more time indoors in close contact with other people in heated homes. Germs are more easily passed in close heated quarters. This also explains why kids seem to catch colds more frequently in the winter - they are confined all day with other children passing germs among each other. Also, think about spending eight hours in the car with your partner who has the sniffles. You'll catch them too.

Myth #3: Cover your head to prevent heat loss.
It is certainly prudent to wear a hat in cold weather, just as it is to wear a coat and gloves. The truth is that any part of the body that is exposed to the cold will lose heat, and that includes your hands, neck, and face. Keep covered up, particularly when the wind chill is dangerously low.

Myth #4: Dress in layers to stay warm.
It really depends on what you're doing. If you're only exposed to the cold infrequently, a warm parka or jacket will serve you well and keep you nice and warm. However, if you will be exerting yourself such as exercising, then layering up is a sound practice. Be sure to wear a synthetic fabric next to your skin, a knit middle layer, and a synthetic outer layer... which segues to our next myth.

Myth #5: Cotton is a natural fabric and serves as a good insulator.
Cotton is definitely warm, particularly if you are lying around the house, perhaps in front of the fire watching television or reading a great book (one of the novels I've written?). But when cotton gets wet, such as during exercise or chasing down a subject, it serves as a conductor moving your body heat away from your body at a more accelerated rate than other fabrics. Polypropylene or any other wicking fabric is best to wear as a first layer.

Myth #6: Women and men feel cold at the same temperature.
You've probably already noticed plenty of differences between the sexes; this is just another one of those things that set us apart. The set point temperature, the point at which the body begins to conserve heat, varies by about three degrees between males and females. Women will complain about the cold quicker than men. At about 70 degrees women begin to feel chilled, particularly their hands and feet. Men tough it out to somewhere around 67 or 68 degrees.

Myth #7: You do not have to drink fluids in cold weather.
Here's a clue: if you can see your breath you're losing moisture from your body. Staying hydrated in cold weather is equally as important as it is in warm weather, particularly if you will be active outside, e.g., exercising. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends drinking water before you go out, and bringing some along during your period of activity. Remember, water not alcohol.

Myth #8: Breathing in cold air will damage your lungs.
I used to hear this one from a few friends as an excuse not to run outdoors in the winter. The fact is the ACSM says cold air does not damage the lungs. Even very cold air is warmed to body temperature by the time it hits the lungs. They warn, however, that cold air can trigger an attack for people with asthma.

Myth #9: Chicken soup will cure the common cold.
According to Phyllis Brown, CRNP, warm chicken soup can make a sore throat feel better but it lacks any special medicinal healing power to actually cure the cold. While your mother and grandmother use it as a first resort and truly believe it will cure you, their belief is mostly folklore rather than fact. However, it sure is nice to have that hot bowl of chicken soup served to you when you're feeling a little under the weather.

Myth #10: Starve a cold; feed a fever.
Quoting Phyllis Brown once again, "It is extremely important to stay well hydrated when you're sick. Starving a cold by not drinking plenty of water and juice could do even more damage. Likewise, overeating when you have a fever in not ideal either. It is important to eat, but you should not overindulge. Eat enough to satisfy your appetite and make sure to drink plenty of fluids."

Cold weather is part of life; don't allow it to hinder your activities. Man has survived and thrived in cold temperatures for ages. So until that over-hyped global warming phenomenon occurs, throw on some warm clothing and go out and have some fun.

Stay safe, brothers and sisters!