Can you get a cold from the cold? - (1/22/2019)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Mrs. Brown came into the pharmacy to buy some cough and cold products, as she had not been feeling well. She said to the pharmacist, “I guess I caught a cold while walking our dog, Barney. I probably should have dressed more warmly that day!” She then handed the pharmacist a $20 bill to pay for her items. The pharmacist noticed that the bill was damp. After she left, he immediately went back to wash his hands with soap and warm water. 

From the symptoms she was describing – sore throat, running nose, cough – Mrs. Brown probably has the common cold caused by a rhinovirus. From her lack of GI symptoms – vomiting, diarrhea – the pharmacist concluded that she did not have the flu. However, Mrs. Brown did not get her cold from walking Barney. She got it from touching something or someone with the virus already attached. For example, she may have gone to the market the day before she started feeling ill. She likely grabbed a shopping cart with her bare hands. The cart may have had the virus on it. Once in the crowded market, she encountered people coughing and sneezing all the way from produce to dairy. Then, she may have stood in the checkout line, reading the National Inquirer that someone just thumbed through with their germy hands. 

A 1968 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that the factor that determines whether one gets a cold is being exposed to the virus that causes the cold. Inmates at a Texas prison had the cold virus placed directly into their noses. At varying times after their exposure to the viruses, they were exposed to extreme temperatures, with varying amounts of clothing. Being cold or warm, dressed or undressed, and/or having wet hair or dry hair had no effect on their infection rate. 

However, frigid winter weather may be indirectly responsible for colds. Vasoconstriction, that is, when blood vessels close to the outside of the body, such as those found in the nose, become narrow, dryness occurs. This dryness reduces the nose's ability to filter infections. Upon returning to warm air, rebound vasodilation occurs, whereby one’s nose starts running as blood returns to the tissues. This cycle continues if the runny nose is severe enough to cause mouth breathing. Bypassing the nose's ability to filter inhaled air, combined with dry indoor air, allows the inhalation of virus-bearing mucus, which may trigger colds.

So, don’t worry if you go outside with wet hair and flip-flops just to get the newspaper. If you want to catch a cold, stick your finger inside a sick person’s nostril. Touch your face, nose, and eyes with unwashed hands. If you truly want to be in bed with a cold, hang out with others who have one. They do not call it “catching” a cold for nothing. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that Americans get between 2 and 3 colds per year. That could amount to a billion colds. Hence, there is no way to avoid the airborne viruses that abound, unless you lock yourself in a bubble. All you can do is eat healthily, get some exercise even if it is walking the dog around the block. Also, do not whine at your prescriber for an antibiotic. Antibiotics are for living bacteria. Viruses are not "alive" because they lack properties associated with living organisms, such as the ability to reproduce without the aid of a host cell. And stick a hand sanitizer in your pocket!

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Read more at 


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