Baby, It's Cold Outside

Can you catch a cold by being out in the cold?

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.

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