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Do People Really Get Sick More Often During the Winter?

December 7, 2023

Young woman blows her nose in the snow.

Winter is almost here, and so is cold and flu season. Now that the weather has gotten colder, it may seem like everyone around you is coughing and sniffling. But do people really get sick more often in the winter?

According to Knar Mesrobian, DO, a family medicine doctor with Atlantic Health System, the short answer is yes.

“Viruses like the flu, COVID and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) all peak during the winter months,” explains Dr. Mesrobian. “But that’s not the only reason for higher instances of respiratory illness during the winter. There are many factors at play.”

Dr. Mesrobian breaks down the top three reasons why people get sick more often in the winter and offers simple tips to lower your risk.

Three Reasons Why People Get Sick More Often in the Winter

There are three main reasons why you’re more susceptible to getting a cold or the flu during the winter: cold weather, more time indoors, and peak virus season.

Cold Weather

If your mother told you to wear a hat in the winter so you don’t “catch a cold,” she may have been on to something. Although you can get sick whether you wear a hat or not, scientists recently discovered that cold weather does play a role in your immune response — particularly within your nose.

As Dr. Mesrobian explains it, your nose is the main point of entry for respiratory viruses. When germs enter your nose, billions of tiny extracellular vesicles (EVs) are produced and pushed into your nasal mucous (or snot, in laymen’s terms) to attack the virus before it enters the rest of your body.

New research shows that cold air drastically reduces your nose’s production of these EVs, thereby reducing your immune response. Put another way, when it’s cold outside, it’s cold inside your nose, which compromises your nose as a barrier to germs, so you are more susceptible to viruses entering.

More Time Indoors

If you’re like most people, you probably spend more time indoors as the weather gets colder. While this may keep you warm, it also increases your exposure to germs because enclosed spaces offer different circulation and ventilation than being outdoors. If there’s a virus in the air, you have a higher chance of catching it.

Inside, there are also more surfaces for germs to land on and for you to touch. Dr. Mesrobian reminds us that, “Because most viruses enter through the mouth or nose, if you touch your face, those viral particles are transferred.”

Peak Season

As Dr. Mesrobian mentioned earlier, some viruses peak in the winter months — including colds, flu, RSV and COVID. While you can get sick any time of the year, doctors consider cold and flu season, when infections are highest, from October through March.

Tips to Lower Your Risk of Getting Sick This Winter

Prevention may not always be possible, but there are some simple things you can do to lower your risk of catching a cold or the flu this winter. Dr. Mesrobian offers these four tips:

  • Practice good hygiene – Wash your hands often, cover your coughs and sneezes, and clean frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs and counters.
  • Build up your immunity – Hydrate, rest and eat well so you’re not run down and your immune system isn’t already stressed.
  • Isolate when sick – If you’re already sick or not feeling well, stay away from others to avoid spreading germs.
  • Get vaccinated – The CDC recommends flu and COVID boosters for everyone six months and older. It takes two weeks to build an immune response, so the earlier in the season you do it, the more protected you’ll be.

“Vaccines have proven to be very effective in reducing infections and lowering the risk of severe illness and complications,” says Dr. Mesrobian. “The protection offered from vaccines also helps reduce the spread of the virus.”

Be Proactive About Your Health

To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.

  • Cold, Flu & Viruses
  • Healthy Living