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  • James Tippett MD

Cold Weather and Respiratory Infections


We are now experiencing the cool weather of fall and heading toward colder winter months when infections of the respiratory tract become frequent. The most common upper respiratory infections (URI’s) that become prevalent during this time are influenza (Flu), rhinitis/nasopharyngitis (common cold), rhinosinusitis, and pharyngitis (strep throat). Any of these URI’s, particularly the Flu, can progress to the more serious illness pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection of lung tissue (air sacs) and can be deadly.


There are a number of proposed explanations as to why URI’s are more common in colder months. A basic knowledge of these factors can be of assistance in understanding how to prevent and treat the illness. In general, a cold environment is unfavorable for our immune system and favorable for the germs.


Cold exposure compromises our immunity by drying out the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract and dry membranes are more easily penetrated by germs. Additionally, to preserve body heat, arterial blood flow is diverted inward toward vital organs and away from the respiratory tract. Diverting blood also diverts immune factors that fight the germs. Some experts think that our immune system in general operates more effectively in a warm environment.


Remember mother’s and grandmother’s instructions to grab a warm coat before going out in the cold or we would “catch a cold”? Even though researchers have debunked this notion, most of us can likely remember experiencing a URI after unprotected cold exposure or know someone who has had this experience.


During the colder months, people spend more time indoors, frequently in confined spaces. This results in close contact with other people making transmission of germs more likely. Also, heating systems tend to be drying and some recirculate contaminated air. Then, there is also the ‘school factor’ whereby students are in close contact for prolonged periods and pass germs to each other and then transfer them home to family members.


Some germs, particularly the Flu virus, float in the air in water droplets that are formed in the respiratory tract of infected individuals and are expelled into the atmosphere by coughing or sneezing. In cold dry air, these droplets survive longer and land in a victim’s respiratory tract where they multiply and cause acute illness. In the case of the Flu virus, these droplets can land on inanimate objects and survive for several hours. If a person touches that object and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth, the virus can replicate and cause influenza. In warm weather, these droplets tend to evaporate and the virus falls harmlessly to the earth.


The majority of URI’s are caused by viruses and antibiotics are not beneficial therapy nor will taking an antibiotic prevent a secondary bacterial infection to which viruses increase our susceptibility. The best therapy for URI’s is prevention.


One of the most important preventive measures is the Flu vaccine. This vaccine is recommended for almost everyone, particularly the very young and those over 65. Then there is ‘hand hygiene’(HH). HH is important because the hand is a major vector in transmitting germs. There are 3 main components of HH: 1) Frequent hand washing with soap and water for at least 30 seconds (time yourself by singing Happy Birthday twice); 2) In between hand washing, use alcohol based anti-bacterial hand lotion; 3) Since we can’t rely on our friends and neighbors to be compliant with HH, avoid hand shaking. When greeting people, we recommend the ‘fist bump’ with or without the post bump implosion move.


Finally, consider using a buffered saline nasal spray to keep the mucous membranes moist. This creates a hostile environment for germs-they don’t tend to multiply and thrive in saline.


If you feel that you have picked-up a URI, we suggest the following: 1) Rest and avoid strenuous activities to allow your immune system to function maximally;

2) Drink extra fluids to hydrate the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract and liquefy any mucous produced as a defense so that it can be expectorated and cleared. Along with some water, add electrolyte solutions (sugar-free sports drinks) and soups with added salt. 3) Do not take OTC cold and sinus meds. These agents dry mucous and mucous membranes and make it difficult to clear secretions. One OTC agent that can be beneficial is guaifenesin (Mucinex) which assists in liquefying the mucous.

If you are fighting a URI and improving and then begin to worsen, contact your healthcare provider and get evaluated for a secondary bacterial infection.


Dr. Tippett is the founder of Comprehensive Quality Healthcare Providers located at 1210 Commerce Dr. Suite 106 Greensboro, Ga. 30642. He can be reached at 706-510-3659. Visit his webpage at www.drtippett.com

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