Cool Temperatures, Hot Infections
Do cold viruses like cold weather? They certainly do. One reason is they replicate much better when you cool the nose. But why? What’s the mechanism for getting more colds when it’s cold?
A group at Yale feels they have a partial answer. One part of the immune system does not work as well when it’s 33 versus 37 degrees Centigrade.
That part involves interferon, one of the basic signaling mechanisms to white cells and others that something unpleasant lurks about. Interferon itself is signaled by another protein, MAVS, that works less efficiently at lower temperatures.
So that’s one potential explanation of why cold viruses prefer the cold.
Yet there are many reasons for why we got colds – and they point out what people can do to dispel them.
You, The Ecosystem
You are far more than your human parts.
There’s the 100 trillion bacteria in your gut – only ten times the number of total cells you’ve got. The importance of the biome is getting sufficiently recognized that a patient recently asked me, prompted by an article in Huffington Post: can she treat her anxiety with probiotics? (the answer – potentially possibly if she eats not pro but prebiotics – but that’s a further discussion.)
What’s it like down there inside the gastrointestinal universe? It’s Chicago Gangland multiplied – millions to billions of times. There are a lot more gut bacteria than gangsters. And they all want turf.
Now, consider your nose. What’s living up there?
A veritable United Nations of microorganisms.
There are piles of fungi – mold lives in far more than your home’s walls. Many suspect immune responses to those fungi provoke sinusitis, another common ruination of happiness and pleasure. Other inhabitants include hordes of bacteria – of hundreds to thousands of subtypes. Their numbers change all the time – including with the weather. Next, add on rickettsia, mycoplasma, indeterminate and innumerable pollutants and viruses.
And the viruses themselves? It’s not just rhinoviruses that cause the common cold. And yes, they’re fighting it out between themselves right in your nose, as their populations rise and fall:
With the weather. With the temperature. With the humidity. With the multifarious states of your immunity – all of which shift second by second.
Not only are you an ecosystem but a series of interlinked, responsive, independent ecosystems. The bugs in you want more of you, and they want it now.
So what can you do to protect yourself?
Changing the Infection Game
Fortunately, there appear to be many ways to keep infections – including cold infections – at bay. They don’t all require you to spend all your life in subtropical climates – though people in climes like Florida can point to certain advantages.
Here are things you can do anywhere:
- Talk a walk. There’s quite good evidence that walking, perhaps most effectively in the morning, can knock down colds by perhaps half – in both incidence and frequency.
How that works is complicated, because you as an ecosystem are exceedingly complicated. But it seems a bit of fitness turns up the effectiveness of immunity in general – which may help you with cancer as well.
- Get some sunlight. Light turns on natural killer cells, one of the components of your immune system that kill and control viruses. Light also improves mood and mental effectiveness – as in your ability to work and deal with occupational, social and psychological crises. Yes, it’s worthwhile to fight for a window at work.
- Wash your hands a lot. Some obsessive-compulsive sufferers wash their hands raw every day. Not a good idea. But when possible, give yourself twenty seconds of nice, pleasant hand washing after you fist bump colleagues (much less infectious than shaking hands) and handling all those dorky door knobs. Don’t worry – the bathroom is usually the least infection prone of any named room, and getting there and back helps you get that exercise that turns up immunity.
- Wear warm clothing. It may be a macho sign to go about without a coat in freezing temperatures, but the zap to your immune system may be more than your nasal and oral immune function can handle. When in doubt, being warm is better than being cold (okay, you may not produce as much potentially weight lowering brown fat – yet another discussion.)
- Be careful around airplanes. It’s not that cabins are particularly cold. It’s because cabins are recirculating the viruses of multiple continents in a high, dry climate you’re probably not used to living in. Get that aisle seat and wash your hands liberally (yes, you can use purell, but think what might happen if the bugs get insensitive to that stuff. Soap and water possess multiple advantages.)
You’re an ecosystem. Every time you go inside to an air conditioned office or outside to a cold parking space, you change that environment.
The bugs inside you will change, too.
So protect yourself. Move around. Get sunlight. Wash your hands. Get enough sleep and rest to regenerate yourself.
It’s a harsh world out there – even before you meet the humans.