It has likely happened to you or someone you know.
You head to the bathroom to take a shower and here comes a family member – usually concerned mothers – with a stern warning about showers, cold weather and how the two just don’t mix.
“You know, you shouldn’t shower and then leave the house,” they say. “You’ll get sick.”
And there’s more where that came from in the realm of cold weather claims. There are also beliefs such as “You don’t need to stay hydrated in cold weather” and “Drinking alcohol will keep you warm.”
Dr. Jeffrey Linder is professor, a primary care physician at Northwestern Medicine and chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Northwestern University. He said the reason for so many cold weather claims may be due to factors such as proximity.
“We are more susceptible to bugs like the flu because of low humidity and we’re all together inside more,” he said. “These things are associated so when it gets cold, we do get sick more often but it's actually not directly the cold itself. It’s sort of an indirect cause of us getting sick more.”
We wanted to find out the truth about cold weather beliefs, so we talked to Linder, as well as Dr. Terry Chiganos, an emergency medicine physician at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Illinois. We also ran some of these beliefs by Dr. Robert Lichfield, a family practice specialist at Providence Health & Services in Spokane, Washington.
Keep reading to find out what experts had to say about 12 cold weather claims that have circulated throughout homes, families and friend groups for years.
Claim 1: Wetting your hair or showering before leaving the house can cause you to become sick
Lichfield: "The short answer is no. The actual temperature in the air actually doesn't make us more or less likely to get sick directly. What tends to happen is we are more likely to be inside during the winter months when it's cold and we're therefore more likely to contract viral illnesses from the other folks that are around us. It just so happens to be cold outside and another piece of the correlation too is that we've even adopted the phrase “a cold” to describe the experience that we end up having when we get sick. I think in people's minds, it's almost irresistible. It's cold outside and now I've got a cold. The temperature itself does not make us more likely to get sick, but we are more likely to be sick in the winter because we're inside together more."
Claim 2: Swimming during the winter will make you more likely to catch a cold
Lichfield: "That is also a myth. In fact, you could argue that any good, healthy, safe physical activity actually makes us less likely to get sick because it actually stimulates our immune system. Our bodies were made to move and the more we move, typically in general, the more healthy we are. If we’re in tight quarters, like in a locker room or with other people, then that's how we sometimes could get sick or get a cold."
Claim 3: Swimming during the winter may make you more at risk for an ear infection
Chiganos: "Swimming in general or any other water exposure is a known risk factor for external (outer) ear infections known as swimmer’s ear, but that risk is not increased in the winter. That risk is the same whether you're swimming in the winter or swimming in the summer. Cold exposure or swimming shouldn't increase the risk of a bacterial middle ear infection. "
Claim 4: Dressing in layers will help you stay warm
Linder: "I actually bike to work year-round in Chicago. Layers, particularly something that's insulating and can trap warm air near your body that's a nice warm fabric or wool, is good. An outer layer that's windproof and waterproof will help you keep warm."
Claim 5: Drinking alcohol will keep you warm
Lichfield: "Alcohol dulls some of our sensations and actually can be pretty dangerous in the wintertime. If we get too much to drink, it dulls our perception of cold and of pain. If we're outside in the cold and our body temperature is dropping too much, our central nervous system will try and tell us ‘Hey, it’s too cold. You need to put on a coat or you need to get inside.’ The alcohol dulls those sensations so we may end up staying out too long and we can get into a dangerous situation for hypothermia."
Claim 6: You don’t need sunscreen in the winter
Chiganos: "Sunscreen is always a must, regardless of the season. In fact, UV exposure can be increased or intensified by reflection off snow and ice, so skiers and hikers need to take extra precaution because both the altitude and the dry mountain air can increase UV levels. The body tends to produce more melatonin in the summer, which is UV protective, less in the winter."
Claim 7: You lose 90% percent of your body's heat through your head
Lichfield: "That's false. Our heads do have a really, really rich blood supply, so a lot of heat is moving through our brain and our scalp and the muscles around our scalp. On top of that, our head has way more nerve endings than some of the other parts of our body. The cold exposure, we feel it immediately. The reality of heat loss is our body loses heat roughly equally throughout most of its surface area. The number is actually more like 10%. We lose about 10% of our heat through our head and that's actually just because our head is roughly 10% of our surface area."
Claim 8: If you fall through ice and into water, you will die of hypothermia right away
Chiganos: "You won't die of hypothermia right away but the shock of the cold water can cause a panic response and the urge to reflexively inhale while underwater, which can lead to drowning. If you can prevent that, then over the next several minutes, you can have loss of muscle control, which can be an issue in terms of trying to stay afloat. Hypothermia itself will set in over the course of minutes – half an hour or so. It won't be hypothermia that gets you right away. It would be drowning from inhaling water, but obviously, if you stay in the water for a prolonged period of time, hypothermia will set in. It's always best to try to maintain as much of your body outside of the water. If you have a flotation device, stay on top of that and then of course work to get yourself out of the water."
Claim 9: If you're stranded and thirsty, you should eat snow
Lichfield: "That's only true in a couple situations. It’s best to avoid eating snow, if possible. The risk of eating the snow is that it will very quickly lower your core body temperature. It's not necessarily comfortable but you can go without water for several days and usually do OK as far as surviving. But let's say someone was lost or stuck out in the cold weather and they just didn't happen to be close to any source of water, they didn't bring any water with them, in that situation, their biggest enemy is going to be the cold. Their most valuable resource is the heat that's already in their body and by eating the snow, you're sort of squandering that precious resource of the heat by trying to melt the snow. The water itself in that moment won't be nearly as valuable to you as the heat."
Claim 10: It's not necessary to stay hydrated in cold weather
Linder: "Definitely not true. You can very much get dehydrated in cold weather. In fact, because the air is usually so dry when it's cold, you have to be careful to not get dehydrated when it's cold out. If you're doing stuff that's over an hour, you're probably going to be sweating and/or breathing off enough fluid that you do need to be thinking about drinking fluid and keeping yourself hydrated."
Claim 11: Exercising in cold weather is dangerous
Lichfield: "It's not dangerous other than the ice. The only thing that is uniquely dangerous about exercising in the cold weather is icy surfaces. Falls are terribly dangerous. Running or biking on icy roads is definitely dangerous. I typically encourage folks not to bike on icy roads. If they're going to walk or run, it's best to have some sort of traction covered like Yaktrax or something on their running shoes. There's quite a few companies who manufacture and market shoe covers that have traction cleats on them."
Claim 12: Cold weather means more migraines
Chiganos: "Migraines can be triggered by a host of environmental factors such as changing barometric pressure (air pressure), humidity, major, abrupt weather changes (something that's causing the temperature to drop suddenly or rise suddenly). Everyone is different and I think it's important that you recognize and learn what your migraine triggers may be to avoid them."
Final thoughts from health experts on cold weather and how to protect yourself
In addition to cold weather beliefs that have made their rounds in communities all over the country, there are also some overlooked health issues that involve cold weather.
Most people don’t realize there is a particularly high risk for heart attacks when they are shoveling snow, said Lichfield, the family practice specialist from Washington.
“Lots of really healthy, strong men have died having heart attacks while they're shoveling snow,” Lichfield told USA TODAY. “There’s a lot of theories … one is that oftentimes, when we go out to shovel snow we don't warm up at all. We take our heart from the base resting heart rate to really high really quickly.”
The lack of a transition from a resting heart rate to a high one creates a strain on the body. Doctors also think the heart attacks may be due to the arm movements snow shoveling requires, he said.
“You're kind of mobilizing your heart and your torso a little differently when we're shoveling snow as opposed to when I'm walking or running or doing some other type of exercise,” he said.
Chiganos, the emergency medicine physician in Illinois, said frostbite is often underdiagnosed or dismissed as well. He stressed that it’s important to know the signs of frostbite or frostnip, the less severe version.
Signs include loss of sensation and pain, Chiganos said.
“Remove any wet clothing and start to warm the affected tissues as best you can,” he said. “It's important that you don't walk on frostbitten feet. Don't rub or massage frostbitten areas. … Come into the ER as soon as possible so that we can take a look at the area.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Winter weather health claims debunked by experts: What to know