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Ask: Why do kids get sick when the weather turns cold?

As the weather gets cold, a series of viruses start getting passed around that can cause children, parents and everyone to get sick.

The winter brings an increase in colds, coughs, viral runny nose, and especially influenza. Believe it or not, we are not sure why colds are more frequent in the winter. Common theories are that people tend to be inside and huddled together more which facilitates spreading the virus. Other people think it has to do with how stable the virus is in cold temperatures, what low humidity does to the nose to make it more susceptible, or how low humidity helps the virus spread more effectively in the air. Regardless of cause, we all know that it is more common to get upper respiratory infections in the winter.

How can we prevent this from happening? The common cold virus is mainly passed actually from hand to hand type of contact, not through the air. This is the reason that recently we have tried to encourage people to sneeze into their elbows so that shaking hands doesn’t spread the virus. People should also wash their hands vigorously with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand gel frequently. If you or your child is sick and sneezing, coughing, or febrile it may be better to stay home from work or school to help decrease spread of the viruses in the community. Lastly, good rest and good nutrition can help keep you from getting run down and sick, so be sure to take care of yourself.

Influenza deserves special mention because it comes in a predictable sweep through our community for 6-10 weeks during the winter season. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent influenza, but the methods above like hand-washing and avoiding other people while sick can also help decrease spread. For the elderly or young children, or those with other medical issues there is a high risk of medical complications so particular caution is deserved. There are medications to help prevent and treat influenza although some recent scientific studies questioned how helpful the medications really are. However, particularly for patients listed above at risk of severe complications the medications might help.

One little note for parents of young children, the first 2 years in daycare can be miserable with 7-10 colds a year. As you are missing work another day with your sick 3 year old, remember that studies have shown that children who go to daycare end up getting less illness during kindergarten, so hopefully the immunity they develop now will help protect them, and protect you from more sick kids later in childhood when they’re in school.

Thanks for the question and don’t forget to wash those hands!

Dr. Mike Steiner is a pediatrician in the division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at UNC and North Carolina Children’s Hospital.