Weather changes make you sick, but it's not how you think

More than 80% of acute infections or illnesses that doctors see, especially during the winter, are caused by viruses

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- A change in temperature and barometric pressure can affect your body in different ways.

You can feel it in your joints. You can feel it in your sinuses. But as far as weather changes go, doctors say it can’t make you sick without an actual infection. So as we gather this holiday season, here are some important things to consider. 

Dr. Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease physician and medical director of infection and prevention and control at The University of Kansas Health System, said exposure to a bacterial infection or virus is needed to make you sick.

"The safest places are outdoors, especially if we’re talking about infection and illness," Hawkinson said. "The ventilation really just makes it very hard to be exposed."

Gathering in high-risk situations

More than 80% of acute infections or illnesses that doctors see, especially during the winter, are caused by viruses.

"But what we see as the temperatures get colder, we see people going inside to gather more," Hawkinson said.

Historically, doctors say that is when they see a recurrence of seasonal respiratory infections -- like influenza, common cough and cold coronaviruses and rhinoviruses.

Doctors say it’s more due to behavioral types where people are gathering more in high-risk situations, maybe because of holidays or celebrations, and in poorly ventilated spaces.

"So just by that nature, you are coming into contact. You are having a higher risk of coming into contact and being exposed to those viruses," Hawkinson said.

In the winter months, the cold, dry air, along with barometric pressure changes, can stuff up sinuses or make them too dry, leading to a higher risk of illness if exposed to viruses.

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However, some viruses circulate during the summer, although not as many people seem to get them. But again, doctors say it is more behavioral.

"You’re still doing things more outdoors and in those very well-ventilated places, such as the pool or the beach, where you don’t really have a lot of concern for exposure to those viruses," Hawkinson said. "Compared to those colder winter months, when people are really meeting indoors and having a lot of contact, close with each other."

Systemic symptoms due to weather

When a storm is on the horizon and the atmospheric pressure changes, doctors say there are systemic symptoms where you might notice changes in your joints or bones.

"They can have pain there. They can feel when storms are coming on," Hawkinson said.

For the respiratory system, barometric pressure and humidity can aid in helping to change the way you’re feeling.

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After the rain comes through, doctors say your acute symptoms will be short-lived as opposed to an infection when those illnesses can go on for a week or two.

"And then certainly, if you do have a viral infection, and you do get that cough or cold, that cough can sometimes linger for three or four weeks," Hawkinson said.

Improving your immune system

Doctors suggest the best things for improving your immune system are the commonalities that everybody should be doing already, like getting good rest, adequate nutrition, hydration and exercise. 

Other behavioral issues are understanding and taking into account the high-risk situations that you may be attending.

"For instance, indoor spaces, indoor gatherings where there are more people, maybe people who are in your bubble who you don’t know where they have been," Hawkinson said.

And if you do get high-risk situations, you should continue to be masked and distanced as much as possible, doctors recommend. 

Hand hygiene is also vitally important, as well as routine vaccinations, like the flu vaccine.

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