7 Cold Weather Health Myths You Shouldn’t Believe
As the year draws to a close, the Northern Hemisphere is facing temperature drops, snow, ice and the delights of struggling through sub-zero wind to get to work. While this time of year is good for snuggling by the fire and binge-watching DVDs, it's also a period prone to a lot of myths about how cold weather affects your health. Old wives' tales about how the body reacts to winter are more popular than you might think, and while you may know that some of them ("starve a fever, feed a cold," for example, or the idea that going out with wet hair will get you sick) are hopelessly old-fashioned, others may have been taught as fact. And that's bad news — extremely irritating for your doctor if you show up in their office saying you got sick from not wearing a hat.
Health myths are often based on things that seem logically correct, or on observations that appear to be cause and effect, but are actually due to other more scientific factors. There's sometimes a kernel of truth in the way misconceptions about winter and the human body emerge, even if they go about it in the wrong way. However, just because a belief has a long history doesn't mean it's worth believing — though good luck convincing your gran it's OK to go out with wet hair.
1. Rainy Weather Doesn't Cause Achy Joints
This is a relatively new discovery. For years, the idea of "feeling in your bones" that rainy weather was about to come or that winter was upon us has been a pretty accepted idea. Bones, however, turn out to be far less susceptible to exterior temperatures than we thought. A 2017 study from Harvard has found that there's no apparent link between the coming of rain and any joint pain, and their results are pretty comprehensive: They come from a survey of 11 million people across America. There's more evidence to support the idea that cold weather may cause increased joint pain in people with arthritis, but the usual explanation for this — that it's to do with barometric pressure — isn't in fact very likely. Cold-weather pain is more probably caused by shifts in internal blood flow, as nerves constrict in cooler weather and may cause more pain in your joints.
2. Cold Weather Does Not Directly Cause Illness
We should all learn this in primary school, but the myth persists. Just because certain illnesses are more prominent in cold weather doesn't mean that the cold weather actually causes them. A variety of factors combine to make the spread of colds and flu more violent when it's cold. One factor is humidity; a study in 2007 found that lower humidity helped influenza to spread quickly, and dryness in the air may help the health of flu viruses. Another is close contact with other people in poorly ventilated spaces, which may make it easier for dry-air transmitted viruses to enter your nasal passages, where it's warm, and survive to make your life a misery.
3. Heat Does Not Mostly Escape Through Your Head
Many of us have heard the idea that you lose up to 40 percent of your body heat from your head. You may be surprised to know that this isn't actually true, and that being yelled at about your hat when you leave the house isn't going to do much. The origins of this idea may come from a U.S. military survival guide from the 1970s, but scientists in 2008 debunked the idea, noting that human heat loss is highly dependent on what's exposed at the time; if you're in bitterly cold conditions and only your head is exposed, then the majority of your heat will go through your head, but if you're less clothed, your heat loss will redistribute accordingly.
4. High Wind Won't Cause Frostbite
Getting yourself caught in fast, cold wind won't actually cause you to develop frostbite on your extremities, though it's definitely not good for you. The National Forest Foundation explains:
"High-speed wind dramatically lowers the temperature of your unprotected skin. And the faster the wind, the more quickly your skin cools. However, there is no incremental difference in the effect of wind on your skin at wind speeds over 40 miles per hour. [...] The myth is this: a cold wind can cause frostbite in temps above freezing. Wind increases the rate of heat lost, but it will not lower your skin temp below the ambient temperature."
Being caught without gloves in really high winds isn't great, but wind speed won't cause more damage compared to slightly less intense breezes.
5. Alcohol Doesn't Warm You Up
Stomp in from the snowy outer world and immediately reach for a glass of wine to warm you up? You might be a believer in the myth about the way alcohol affects human temperature. As it happens, alcohol consumption doesn't warm the body at all. It gives the sensation of warmth because it causes blood to flow to the surface of the skin, giving you a flush and making you feel warmer to the touch; but that blood is also moving away from your core, meaning that your organs experience a dip in temperature. The inner parts are the bits that really need to maintain a warm temperature, so step away from the Gluhwein.
6. Hot Baths Are Not A Great Idea When You're Cold
It's an exceptionally bad idea to come in from a freezing day and plunge into a hot bath or a sauna. This is something that Scandinavians will know from birth, but the rest of us may not be so au fait with the consequences: a rapid drop in blood pressure. Moving too fast between temperature extremities, like from cold to heat, can rapidly shift the body's blood flow as veins that were contracting to save body heat suddenly expand to allow cooling blood circulation. The consequence? You may stagger, faint or become unconscious, which is a deeply undesirable thing to do in a bath. Bring up your body temperature slowly with warmth rather than blasting heat.
7. A Cold Winter Is Not Safer Than A Heat Wave
From the news, you might get the impression that it's far more dangerous to experience a heatwave than it is to get through a cold winter snuggling under a blanket. But a study in The Lancet in 2015 blasted that myth out of the (chilly) water. The scientists studied 74 million deaths between 1985 and 2012 in 13 countries around the world, including the U.S. They looked at death patterns throughout the years, and lined them up with temperature variations. 7.71 percent of the deaths they studied had to do with temperature, and 7.29 of those were from cold weather, with hot weather making up the remainder. Cold seasons are, apparently, a lot deadlier for humans than warm ones.
Whether it's hypothermia or some other issue, winter is clearly not a time to stop being vigilant about your health. But that threat doesn't come from heat escaping through your head or other winter myths — and knowing the truth behind these myths may help you avoid what actually makes them dangerous.