Fact or myth: Does cold air make children sick?

Posted on July 16th, 2019

Have you ever been told that it’s not wise to let your kids play outdoors in winter because cold air makes children sick? We debunk this common myth.

Does cold air make children sick

Does cold air make children sick? For centuries, we’ve heard our mothers and grandmothers warn us to stay out of the cold, avoid cold drafts and “bundle up or you’ll catch a cold”, but is there any truth behind these common concerns?

The truth about cold air and illnesses

Studies have confirmed that it’s not the cold air itself that makes children (and adults sick), it’s germs that make you sick. The truth is, your child has to come into contact with the rhinovirus to catch a cold or be infected with the influenza virus to contract the flu.

However, the answer is more complex than a simple yes or no.

Some viruses are more likely to spread and peak in winter or during a change of season – such as autumn and spring. In South Africa, GPs claim to treat more children with a cold or flu virus in May and towards the end of August. This could be the reason why parents often blame the cold air for their child’s sniffles.

Additionally, a study published in the National Academy of Sciences found that the common cold virus (the rhinovirus) replicates faster in the nasal cavity and upper respiratory system when the temperature dips.

In another study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found that the influenza virus is most stable in cool, dry temperatures. However, other studies have also found that some strains of the influenza virus as well as some bacteria thrive in warm, humid climates. So, the jury is still out on this one.

The bottom line is, cold air doesn’t necessarily make your child sick, germs do.

ALSO SEE: 7 tips to boost your child’s immune system

Dry indoor air and poor ventilation

When it’s cold outside, parents, caregivers and teachers tend to keep children indoors and close the doors and windows. The truth is, a lack of ventilation can do more harm than good, because research has shown that air droplets from a cough or sneeze spread and survive better in dry, indoor air.

Also, “Children gathering in schools is one of the main ways germs circulate in communities,” says paediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child Healthy in a Germ-Filled World, Athena P Kourtis.

This is because children are in close contact with each other at school, especially in winter when they’re encouraged to play indoors, and children have germy habits – such as:

  • Coughing and sneezing, then playing with toys
  • Sharing cups and utensils
  • Not washing hands enough (especially after a trip to the bathroom)
  • Putting objects in their mouths.

The solution…

The best way to prevent germs from spreading indoors is to allow some more circulation by opening a window or two and encouraging children to wash their hands regularly throughout the day – especially before snack or lunchtime, after play time and after using the bathroom.

Why winter fresh air is good for your child

According to Keystone STARS childcare health consultant, Anne Dodds, winter fresh air is good for everyone and you shouldn’t keep your kids inside throughout winter.

She believes that the indoor circulation of germs and bacteria is much more harmful to your child than playing outside, and that it’s important to let your children play outdoors and get plenty of exercise in winter, so long as you follow winter safety tips such as dressing your child properly.

TOP TIP: If your child has a current upper or lower respiratory infection, it’s important to take extra precautions in winter as cold, dry air can trigger a cough or runny nose or exacerbate a chest infection.

ALSO SEE: Your  guide to childhood respiratory illnesses

Winter play boosts the immune system

“In fresh, outdoor air, children don’t have to rebreathe the germs of the group in a play group or pre-school setting, and the chance for spreading infection is reduced,” she says.

Additionally, “Being outside more often also allows your child to develop a stronger immune system and a resistance to allergies. Studies have shown that children who are active outside have the best overall health.”

In fact, US-based Childcare Health Programmes encourage outdoor play, even in parts of the US where it often snows. Why? Because winter play gives children an opportunity for a change of environment, a balance in play and routine, and large muscle activities (gross-motor development).

Studies have shown physical activity gives the immune system a power surge for a full 24 hours. And, a stronger immune system leads to less illness and less use of antibiotics.

The good news is, in sunny South Africa, we have plenty of opportunities to play outdoors in winter, without the risk of freezing temperatures.

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About Tammy Jacks

Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.