Slate's Medical Examiner: Cold from the Cold?

New research looks at whether you can catch a cold from being physically chilled. Madeleine Brand talks to Dr. Sydney Spiesel, Yale Medical School professor and Slate contributor about the likelihood of a chill causing an infection.

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From NPR News it's DAY TO DAY. How many times have you heard this: you'll catch a cold by going out in the cold if you're not bundled up? Moms have issued that warning to their kids forever. It sounds good, but is it true? A new study tries to answer that question, and here to tell us more about that study is Dr. Sydney Spiesel. He's a Yale Medical School professor and he writes for the online magazine Slate.

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Yale Medical School): Thanks, always nice to be here.

BRAND: Tell us how the doctors set up this experiment.

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, they took 180 people and--this was done, by the way, in Cardiff in Wales, where they have a center that studies common colds, and they took this 180 people and they divided them into two groups randomly. Well, that's good. And then half of them put their feet in a pot of cold water for 20 minutes. And the other half, this was a little bit peculiar, the other half put their feet in an empty pot for 20 minutes. Then they were observed.

And after four or five days two things were done. One thing that was done is that they stuck this thing up their noses and they had to breathe out. And it was supposed to measure in an objective way how stuffy their noses actually were. And then they were also reported in a little diary whether they thought they had a cold. The problem is that everybody who participated in the study knew which side of the test they were given. It was not, you know, it was not a surprise.

BRAND: Well, what happened?

Dr. SPIESEL: What happened were two things: the objective measure they reported as being--well, it was too variable for them to get an idea of whether it was useful or not, so they just threw out the objective measure, the Nose-ometer. And then they just looked at the diaries. And yeah, if you looked at the diaries, sure enough, the people who knew their feet were in cold water seemed to have complained about more symptoms than people whose feet were sitting in empty pots.

BRAND: And did the scientists then determine that indeed being colder does cause more colds?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, they said so. I mean, their conclusion was that acute chilling of the feet causes the onset of common cold symptoms in about 10 percent of the people who are chilled. Well, maybe it does, but maybe it just makes people more aware and expect to have symptoms. Sadly for all those grandmothers out there, this is not a study that I would put much weight in. It would have been even more objective if they had just counted the number of Kleenexes that people used.

BRAND: A lot of people have put forth this idea that when you go out in cold weather your body is so concerned with keeping warm that it actually lowers your defenses.

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, I think that there are reasons that you're more susceptible to getting viruses in the winter, but I don't think it's my body's thinking that it really ought to hunker down. In cold weather people tend to remain indoors and exposed to each other more closely. If you're outdoors, first of all, all the blowing air blows away viruses if people are coughing and hacking and sneezing. And also you're often exposed to the ultraviolet light or your nasal secretions or the sneeze droplets are exposed to the ultraviolet light from sunlight, which tends to sterilize it. Indoors that doesn't happen and people are more likely to be exposed to viruses.

BRAND: Dr. Sydney Spiesel is a Yale University medical professor and contributor to the online magazine Slate as well as for this program DAY TO DAY. And thank you Dr. Sydney Spiesel for joining us.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you.

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