Can a chill really cause a cold?

Monday, July 10, 2006
Winter is the season for colds — but how do you catch a cold? Are you more likely to catch a cold if someone sneezes on you or is leaving home without your jumper a certain guarantee?

What is a cold? The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory system, including the nose, throat, sinuses, larynx, and bronchial tubes. It often starts with a sore throat and a headache — you know you are going to be miserable for the next four or five days, at least ... but some colds are absolute shockers to shake off.

Like the cold Chris Pappas has brought to GP Margaret Hamilton for medical advice. He's got all the symptoms, so it looks like the cold virus has really taken hold.

Worse still, Dr Hamilton tells Chris there's nothing he can do about it.

But could Chris have avoided catching a cold in the first place if he'd just rugged up a bit more?

Well if this theory is true, then places like Sydney's Minus Five Bar should be a hotbed of disease.

Here, the drinks are not the only thing that is chilled — patrons must wear the mandatory cold weather gear and they're bundled out after half-an-hour before hypothermia sets in.

This venue would therefore make the perfect laboratory to conduct a test: whether getting cold will give you one.

Test one
We've lined up four men who've agreed to get their gear off — well, most of it anyway — and chill out in the Minus Five Bar to see whether they catch cold.

Firstly, Dr Hamilton, gives the boys a quick check-up to look for signs of a developing cold: sore glands, infected ears.

She gives them all the all-clear and gets the boys to strip down to look like they're heading to the beach — nothing other than boardshorts.

Dr Hamilton will also go into the bar, but she's flying "comfort class" and will be well rugged up for the 20 minute duration of the test. She'll be there to keep a weather eye on our lab rats' medical condition while they're in there.

Inside the Minus Five Bar, our chaps are about to be chilled to the core and to make things even more interesting, the temperature has been wound down to minus eleven point two!

At first the guys find the whole freezing experience a bit of fun, but after about 10 minutes it's a whole new story. At these temperatures, the guys could stay for an hour before it gets dangerous. Hypothermia sets in when the body's core temperature drops by two degrees. But by the look of these guys, 20 minutes can't come quickly enough.

After 20 minutes they can't escape fast enough. In five days time, we'll check on our frozen fellas and see if they've developed a cold.

Test two
Imagine getting sneezed on by your mate? To spice things up, we're adding in another cold experiment to the mix.

Remember Chris Pappas and his rotten cold? Well, he's offered to share it with best mate, Sean Brown. But will Sean catch it?

Sean's agreed to let Chris sneeze and cough over him. He's also agreed to touch one of Chris's mucus-covered tissues that he'd prepared earlier. It's germs galore!

So who's more likely to catch a cold? A sneezed-over Sean or the snap-frozen lads in the Minus Five Bar?

A week later, Sean's in the pub. Despite those sneezes courtesy of Chris, he's still a picture of health.

"I feel that my healthy lifestyle built up my immune system so that's the reason I didn't get sick. But I feel Chris owes me this beer so that's why I'm having this today. Here's to you. Cheers mate," says Sean.

What about the guys who spent 20 minutes freezing in the Minus Five Bar?

They too didn't catch a chill or a cold. Five days afterwards, they're in the gym pumping iron, not tissues.

So why didn't either of the participants in both tests catch a cold?

To find out why, Professor David Issacs from Sydney's Children's Hospital in Westmead, who is an infectious disease physician, can explain.

"A cold is a viral infection caused by common cold viruses, of which there are lots," he says. "The virus gets into our nose, it makes us cough. It makes our cells respond to it by producing mucus and that's all trying to fight off the virus. So the virus causes the infection and the host response to it causes a lot of the symptoms."

So that explains why even though our lads were chilled to the bone, they didn't catch cold — there was no cold virus to infect them.

"So getting cold doesn't make you more likely to get a cold. That's an old wives' tale. A myth," says Professor Issacs.

Some recent research suggests that there may be a connection between getting a chill and the cold virus's ability to take a hold and cause symptoms to develop. However, this does not mean that chills cause colds, rather that an already present virus will be given a better opportunity to develop.

The most common way to catch a cold is to touch things that a cold victim has handled. If you get the secretion on your hands and accidentally rub your hands on your nose or your eyes, you can get a cold that way.

And the good old cough? Yep, that too is guaranteed to spread a nice gob of virus.

Which brings us back to Sean. Why didn't he catch a cold off his mate Chris? Well, there are two possibilities. The first is that even though he copped a good spray of cold virus, Sean's immune system may have been strong enough to fight off the invader.

"He might have been exposed to that virus sometime in the past and he was quite immune to it. So his body recognised it, didn't bother getting sick from it," says the Professor.

The other possibility is that Chris was only infectious for a limited period, one day before his symptoms appeared, and up to three days afterwards. By the time he sneezed all over his mate Sean he was well into the cold, so his infectious period may have passed.

So why do we catch more colds in winter? We're indoors more and in close contact much more, therefore winter is a paradise for cold viruses as they prefer slightly cooler weather and moister weather. So the viruses circulate during winter and that's why we're more likely to get sick in winter.

Top ways to catch a cold around the office

  • Telephones
  • Doorknobs
  • Computer keyboards
  • Borrowed pens

  • It's not called the "common" cold for nothing … a whopping four and a half million Australians cop a cold at least once a year.

  • Kids average six to eight colds a year, while adults average between two and four. Why? Well, there are hundreds of cold viruses. Every time we catch one, it's unlikely that we'll ever get that strain again. So the older you are, the more cold viruses you've fought off and the less likely you are to get a cold.

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