How to Avoid Getting Sick in Winter: Science Tips

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Wondering why you keep getting sick when the weather changes? While there is no guaranteed way to avoid winter colds, we will try to shine some light on why you may be more vulnerable to infections when it's getting chilly and what you can do to prevent getting sick in winter.

Can weather change make you sick?

When winter is just around the corner, you’re probably wondering if the change of weather can make you sick. After all, you probably grew up hearing things like these:
  • “It’s going to be a cold day. Wear a scarf or you’ll get a sore throat.”
  • "Put on an extra sweater so that you don’t catch a cold.” 
  • "See, you went outside without a hat and now you’re sneezing.”

Well, the truth is that cold temperatures by themselves won’t make you sick. Diseases like the flu, the common cold, strep throat, sinus infections, pneumonia, and so on are caused by viruses and bacteria, not by weather changes.

Here’s why you may be vulnerable to winter illnesses

So… if colds aren’t caused by cold weather, why are they so much more frequent in the fall and winter months? And why does flu season peak around the middle of winter?

It turns out that while chilly weather doesn’t cause infections by itself, it can increase the likelihood of catching respiratory diseases. Here’s why.

Dry air outside and inside

Evidence suggests that viruses spread more easily when the air is dry. Since air humidity drops as temperatures get colder, chilly weather makes it easier for viruses to travel around and infect people.

Low air humidity can also cause the inside of your nose to dry out, leaving it vulnerable to any viruses that happen to get there.

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But what about the air in your cozy, warm home? Well, it’s just as dry, unless you take extra steps to increase indoor humidity, like setting up a humidifier, hanging your laundry up to dry, growing lots of indoor plants, or just placing bowls of water near radiators.

Staying inside with other people

Most people spend less time outside when it’s cold. Instead, they hang out with other people in crowded indoor places (just think of Christmas shopping).

This is the perfect environment for respiratory viruses that spread via direct contact or via water droplets exhaled by an infected person.

Lack of vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a key role in protecting your body from infections. However, many people don’t get enough of it in the winter months.

Your body produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. But winter days are short and even if you do venture outside, you’re all wrapped up in warm clothing so you can’t really produce significant amounts of this important vitamin.

People walking in a snowy forest in winter

How to avoid getting sick in winter: 9 tried-and-true ways

Now that you know why you might be more prone to colds and other seasonal infections, let’s talk about how to keep from getting sick.

1. Watch your hygiene

Wash your hands as often as possible because soap is very good at disintegrating bacteria and viruses. If you don’t wash your hands frequently, you can catch a virus by touching a surface and then putting your hands near your eyes, nose, or mouth. 

Some situations when you should always wash your hands include:

  • Before and after eating or preparing food
  • Before inserting or removing contact lenses 
  • Before and after caring for a person who has vomiting or diarrhea
  • After blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing a diaper or cleaning up a child who’s just used the toilet
  • After being in public places and using public transport 

If you’re in a situation where soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead.

2. Get a flu shot

Almost everyone over the age of 6 months can (and should) get a flu shot every year. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but flu vaccines are safe for most people, including children and pregnant women.

While the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, it’s very good at preventing severe illness and complications.

Some of these complications can be very serious and even deadly, so it’s best to prevent them at all costs.

3. Relax more often

Your body and your mind aren’t separate entities. Some mental states, such as chronic stress, can take a toll on your body and make you more likely to get sick. On the other hand, enjoyable activities can strengthen your immune system.

There are many different ways to manage stress, so try making some of these activities a part of your daily routine:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga (or any other kind of gentle physical activity that you enjoy)
  • Working out
  • Cuddling with your pet
  • Scheduling regular quality time with your loved ones
  • Listening to music, singing, or playing an instrument
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Journaling
  • Watching funny videos or spending time with people who make you laugh (yes, laughing is good for your health!) 

If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of stress in your life, don’t hesitate to talk to a mental health professional.

4. Stay active outside

While you probably wish you could spend the entire winter in the comfort of your cozy bed, research suggests that physical activity helps your body fight off disease. According to one study, regular exercise reduces inflammation and improves the circulation of white blood cells.

Physical activity is also known to reduce stress.

This is important because chronic stress can make you more prone to the common cold and other diseases. 

But can’t you just work out in a warm gym? Sure, you can, but remember that exercising outside has additional benefits. You don’t breathe other people’s air, you don’t touch sweaty gym equipment, and you reduce your stress levels even further by spending time in nature.

5. Adapt your nutrition to colder weather

Since cold weather makes it easier for viruses to infect you, it’s a good idea to eat more foods that are good for your immune system.

For example, a study of mice showed that eating green vegetables sends a chemical signal that helps the immune system function properly. While we’re not mice, green veggies are probably good for us as well.

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Colorful vegetables and fruit provide a wide range of vitamins, antioxidants and other chemical compounds that are important for your overall health. They also look fun and many people find them more appealing than broccoli and other leafy greens. Frozen veggies and fruit are just as healthy as fresh ones.

6. Get more vitamin D

In winter, your body can’t produce enough vitamin D because your skin doesn’t get enough sunlight.

Fortunately, you can also get vitamin D from certain foods. They include:

  • Fatty fish like salmon or herring
  • Red meat
  • Liver
  • Eggs
  • Foods that have been fortified with vitamin D

If you don’t eat meat or animal-based products in general, you may be at a higher risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency. Take care to eat more foods that have extra vitamin D added to them, such as fortified cereals.

In addition to this, you can also consider vitamin D supplements. Just remember that too much vitamin D can harm you, so ask your doctor to help you determine the exact dosage you need to take.

7. Cut back on unhealthy habits

Smoking is known to disrupt the immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off disease. In addition to this, it can make certain diseases worse - including any infections that affect your respiratory organs.

Alcohol consumption is another bad habit that makes people more prone to various illnesses. Alcohol affects the immune system in several ways, from disrupting the gut microbiome (the bacteria that live in the gut and help you stay healthy) to damaging the immune system cells that protect the lungs.

While an occasional drink won’t do serious damage, regular alcohol consumption makes people more prone to dangerous lung infections. So if you intend to spend those long winter nights partying, you may want to change your plans.

A ginger and lemon drink to prevent colds in winter

8. Stay hydrated

Staying hydrated is a key element of health and well-being. Drinking enough fluids helps your body regulate its temperature, fight off infections, deliver nutrients to every cell, and keep vital organs healthy.

If you don’t like the taste of plain water, you can flavor it with fruit or herbs. Other options are milk, juices (as long as you’re aware of the sugar content), and beverages like tea and coffee. If your body is already used to drinking caffeinated beverages, they won’t dehydrate you.

9. Keep others healthy as well

Colds, influenza, and other respiratory infections can spread very quickly, so take care not to infect other people if you become sick. Wash your hands often, cover your nose and mouth, and avoid sharing towels and cups with other people. Also, don’t hesitate to take time off work or school if you have cold-like symptoms.

Key takeaways

Cold temperatures and weather changes in general don’t directly cause colds, influenza, or other respiratory infections. However, they can increase the likelihood of getting sick.

Fortunately, there are some simple precautions and lifestyle hacks that can reduce your chance of getting a runny nose, a sore throat, or a more serious infection.

August 31, 2022