Cold weather is here again. And with it comes colds and flus.
Viruses, such as the common cold or influenza, spread through airborne transmission from one person to another. After you’re exposed — new research shows — microbes congregate and multiply in your soft palate at the back of your mouth. From there, microbes spread through the air you breathe throughout your upper respiratory system.
Of course, lymphoid tissue, which houses white blood cells, normally surrounds the back of the soft palate, and the rest of the nasopharynx. These immune system tissues (tonsils and adenoids) and white blood cells form what is known as “Waldeyer’s Ring.” And they help fight off infection. In fact, they protect the entrances to your respiratory system and your GI system, past the soft palate, like little fortresses with microscopic soldiers.
So, when and if you have your tonsils or adenoids surgically removed (because they become temporarily swollen trying to do their jobs), you then leave your entrances defenseless to microbes.
The existence and importance of Waldeyer’s Ring is old news. But many pediatric surgeons still have not gotten the message. Perhaps they’ll take notice now — with the new research showing that the soft palate is the site where cold and flu viruses stage their attack.
It makes sense that white blood cells are located in the exact right place to repel these viruses (if you leave them there). Nature always seems to have a perfect design, doesn’t it?
Of course, there are many common infections and health problems floating around at this time of year. So — I thought I’d take a moment to run through a few of them:
* Influenza Virus
Flu and cold symptoms may be similar, but the flu is typically more severe and includes aches, chills and fever. People infected with influenza are contagious for a day before they get sick, and up to one week afterwards.
* Common Cold
The common “cold” is caused by another viral infection (typically a “rhinovirus”) in the upper respiratory tract, associated with cold weather. A sore throat is usually an early symptom of a respiratory infection.
A typical cold sore results from the highly contagious HSV-1 virus (human syncitial virus), which also causes a very serious lung infection in infants. In an adult, the virus remains dormant until activated by stress or a weakened immune system. So when your body is fighting off a viral cold or flu, a sore caused by this other HSV virus may suddenly break out. It is transmitted by touch.
Cold air can also cause a seasonal form of asthma. No microbe is involved, but it’s simply the cold temperature that causes the lower respiratory tract to react with coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, when airways constrict as a reaction to drops in temperature.
* GI infections
The opening at the back of the soft palate is also the entryway to the gastro-intestinal system. Likewise, GI viruses also run rampant during cold weather in densely populated environments where people congregate indoors, such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes. (Cruise ships are another common area of contagion, typically not because of cold-weather crowding indoors, but the physical restrictions of being on a ship in close quarters.)
Infection with norovirus causes diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. This virus spreads by touching contaminated surfaces, eating food handled by an infected carrier, or even inhaling viral particles.
* Joint pain
Aside from infections, cold weather can also cause problems with painful joints. It may seem strange that cold weather could increase inflammation (heat, redness, pain, and swelling). After all, we typically ice a joint injury to decrease pain and inflammation.
But a big drop in temperature typically follows a sudden drop in barometric (atmospheric) pressure with the movements of weather fronts. And with chronic inflammation in the joints, any change in pressure can exacerbate the pain.
Also, you may be more sedentary during winter weather, which means you are moving around less. Getting less activity and movement can lead to more painful, stiffer joints.
* Dry Skin
Dry skin relates to the lower humidity during winter. Cold air holds less moisture in the air, which simply dries out skin. Also, indoor heating can “bake” all the moisture out of the air. You don’t have to shower, which also dries out the skin, as much during winter, since you’re not sweating like during hot weather.
Overall, the keys to avoiding illness during the winter are:
- Practice good personal hygiene by frequently washing your hands with regular soap and water.
- Avoid touching common areas when you go out.
- Carry your own pen to sign receipts.
- Carry pocket hand sanitizer (alcohol based only).
- Wash your face and gargle regularly.
- Between the dry air and frequent washings, use herbal moisturizers and topical oils on your skin.
Also — follow a healthy diet, including dietary supplements; manage stress; and get plenty of restful sleep, especially if you feel you are coming down with something.
Last but not least, aim to stay active to keep up good circulation during the winter. Your blood carries glucose, oxygen and nutrients to your brain and body. It also carries the white blood cells of your immune system that help you fight off infections.
Exposure to cold causes blood vessels to constrict, conserving body heat. It also reduces blood flow to extremities, such as fingers, toes, face, and nose. And reduced blood circulation means fewer white cells to your outer respiratory passages. By itself, cold temperature will not make you ill. But it might make you more susceptible to infections during cold, dry weather.
In next month’s February issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter, I will tell you all about how to avoid getting pneumonia, a serious and sometimes even life-threatening lower respiratory infection. If you’re not already a subscriber, sign up today to make sure you don’t miss this important information.
- “The soft palate is an important site of adaptation for transmission of influenza viruses, Nature 2015, October 1; 526 (7571): 122-125.