As most people know, it's a common thing to say something like "better wear a sweater, otherwise I'll get the cold tomorrow."

In my limited understanding, the common cold is caused by a virus. How does being cold affect this?

Can being cold and/or wet be a significant influence in your chances of 'catching' the common cold?

3 Answers 3


This is a pretty old old-wives tale, taking many forms: don't go out into the cold while it's raining, or without a hat, with wet hair, without a warm coat or scarf, without boots, etc., "or you'll catch your death of cold."

The old wive's tale was immortalized by Jane Austin in her book, Pride and Prejudice, when the heroine's sister Jane falls ill after getting a soaking in the rain.

This has been studied extensively. A New York Times article describes one such uncomfortable-sounding study:

In the 1950's, Chicago researchers repeated the experiment on a larger scale with several hundred volunteers sitting in their socks and underwear in a 60-degree room before being inoculated with infectious mucus. Others, in coats, hats and gloves, spent two hours in a large freezer. The conclusion: all 253 chilled volunteers caught cold at exactly the same rate as 175 members of a warm control group.

In other words, being cold had no effect on catching a cold.

A 1968 experiment studied the effect of (among other methods of chilling) a cold water bath at several stages during and after inoculation with rhinovirus (one of the many viruses responsible for the common cold). No effect.

Yet the studies continue, because anything shown to decrease the incidence of the common cold would be beneficial to the sufferers, as in the US alone, 75 to 100 million physician visits are due to the common cold, and millions of days are lost from school and work.

But what has never been proven is that getting chilled in any way causes one to come down with a cold.

'You'll Catch Your Death!' An Old Wives' Tale? Well...
Exposure to Cold Environment and Rhinovirus Common Cold — Failure to Demonstrate Effect
Acute cooling of the body surface and the common cold

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    1+ Good job on the answer definitely, its well supported and everything. However, doesn't being cold lower your immune system? I know the other answer mentions that and that does seem like something worth while to mention.
    – Pobrecita
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 4:07
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    @Pobrecita I doubt that being cold "lowers your immune system" (whatever you imagine that means). Being cold often is sure going to make you weak in general since you need to invest valuable nutrients in order to maintain homeostasis, then you're probably more likely to get sick if infected. But there are many other things that make you weak and are known to lead to sickness, such as stress, heavy exercise, malnutrition... Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 13:37
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    @TomášZato I agree with Pobrecita's point. Your body puts more resources into staying warm when you are cold, and this lowers the immune system. At least that's what I've been told.
    – Celeritas
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 13:11
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    @Celeritas That's really imagining human body like a sci-fi spaceship that freeky moves ennergy from "motors" to "shields". Not even real means of transport work like that. How do you imagine "lowering immune system" would work? Converting leukocytes to heat? I doubt that. Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 13:50
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    @Celeritas yourlogicalfallacyis.com/burden-of-proof - medical claims are to be proven, not disproven. I don't know how exactly it works, but I highly doubt it's as simplistic as you describe. Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 13:58

This is an old wives tale. Being cold in and off itself will not cause you to catch a cold because a cold is viral. 3

However, being cold for a long time can lower your immune response and if your system was already fighting a cold then symptoms may present that were not needed before. This is because your scored an own goal when you lowered your immune response.

So that possible miss-attribution aside (you already had a cold but did not know it) no, being cold will not cause you to become ill... unless you stay so cold that your body starts to shut down.

One study

[...] found that the cells stored at 98.6 degrees launched a more robust immune attack than the ones at 91 degrees. 1

That study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 4

A study at the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff found that people who chilled their feet in cold water for 20 minutes were twice as likely to develop a cold as those who didn't chill their feet. 2

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    This is the study Cardiff refers to: It is a small study; the authors also relied on self-reporting and state: "The results of the present study demonstrate that chilling is associated with the onset of common cold symptoms but the study does not provide any objective evidence, such as virology, that the subjects were infected with a common cold virus." In any case, it has been suggested elsewhere that a subclinical infection may be converted to a clinical infection with cold exposure. Commented May 5, 2015 at 16:11

My experience has been that when I, or someone in my family, gets chilled, this seems to increase the chance of coming down with a cold. I tried searching on google for this, and found this article, which says:

in mouse airway cells, rhinovirus replicates preferentially at nasal cavity temperature due, in part, to a less efficient antiviral defense response of infected cells at cool temperature.

Here is the abstract of the study they were talking about.

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