My mother, a school science teacher, is of the opinion that the common cold gains its name from the fact that you can acquire a cold virus more readily when you yourself feel cold. For example, in her view, if you were to spend a day in a cold temperature with inadequate clothing, or spend a long time standing in a rainstorm, you'd increase your chance of catching a cold.

I can see the potential for this to be true - if your body is at an inadequate temperature, it might be more susceptible to catching a cold (or anything for that matter) as your body is busy trying to keep you warm rather than protecting you from disease.

I argue with her, however, as I understand the name of the Common Cold to be referring to the most common symptom of it, in that it makes your body feel cold, causing you to wear extra clothing.

Could someone please enlighten me as to how the Common Cold actually takes its name, is it one of the above alternatives, or something else entirely? As a bonus, is there actually any merit to my mother's logic - is it actually easier to catch a cold when you're physically colder than your body would prefer?

1 Answer 1


The thing to recognize is that until the past century, they didn't know that a cold was a virus, but may well have associated it more with actual effects caused by the cold. Indeed, this line at Wikipedia agrees with that:

The name "cold" came into use in the 16th century, due to the similarity between its symptoms and those of exposure to cold weather.

And it references this listing at Etymology Online supporting this thinking.

So it's neither based upon the fact the cold can help you catch the virus, as your mom suggests, nor the feelings during the cold. Instead, it was an archaic belief that the cold made the disease itself.

As to your question on whether cold can help encourage the common cold, this Blog from Harvard appears to goes into great detail on the related question for the flu. They mention the theory that altered human habits in winter very much benefit communicability; we are less active, stay inside more, and have school and large indoor holiday gatherings.

But the summary also references studies investigating direct impacts of temperature. There were indications that the flu spreads well at any temperature... if the air is dry. But it only does well in moist air if it is cold. So it's not all about the temperature, but the moisture/temperature combination. The blog does mention that there were some oddities to this thinking, though (in tropical locations, they get the flu the worst when it is rainy and slightly cooler).
So a bit of confusion on some points, but additional studies did show that the flu survives in the air better at cooler temperature.

However, the big answer directly to your question is

Palese tested the immune systems of the animals to find out if the immune system functions poorly at low temperatures and low humidity, but he found no difference in innate immunity among the guinea pigs.

So, long story short, studies on the flu suggest that the temperature doesn't weaken your body (though certainly it seems likely it would if you were exposed for extreme periods of time!), but that it does offer some conditions which help the germs survive better.

  • 1
    Wow, excellent answer, yes certainly it seems quite understandable if you take away the medical knowledge we know so well in this modern era! Thanks for the wonderful detailed answer! Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 19:53

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