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Why do viruses spread more in winter? Cold temps are key



Learn more how about the flu, COVID-19 and the common cold spread in winter, and how to protect yourself.

For many, cold weather just isn’t our thing, which is why we spend some much time huddled indoors. And that makes it easier for the common cold, the flu and COVID-19 to spread— especially the highly transmissible variant, Omicron.

But there are other reasons why cold winter weather makes it easier for these viruses to infect as many people as possible.

Cold temps create ideal conditions

Let’s start with the cold and flu, since they’ve been around and studied for much longer than COVID-19. While it can strike at any time, the flu usually hits its stride in December and peaks in February – typically, the coldest stretch of the year. The common cold also tends to strike in the chillier months.

It’s a myth that cold temperatures themselves cause the cold or flu. But the viruses that cause these infections thrive in dry, cold conditions. What’s more, cold weather changes the way our bodies respond to disease and makes us behave in ways that can increase the risk of infection.

Viruses like influenza tend to enter through the mouth and nose, but our nasal passages usually have strong defenses against them. The cold weather, however, slows down our ability to clear the mucus in our noses, making it easier for viruses to infect our bodies.

That said, the virus that causes COVID-19, with its potent variants, has proven to strike year-round, regardless of season.

Risks for infection can also increase based on where we spend most of our time during the winter: indoors. Here, we gather closely in spaces that may offer less-than-ideal ventilation and cramped personal space. Heating systems also make indoor air drier. Studies have shown that these conditions can greatly affect the transmission of respiratory viruses.

Not surprisingly, the high numbers of people traveling and gathering during the recent winter holidays have contributed to the surge in the highly contagious COVID-19 Omicron variant.

How to reduce your chance of infection

Getting vaccinated for the flu and vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19 are your best protection against serious illness and hospitalization. While Omicron infections mimic the cold in many vaccinated/boosted people, others have been hit far harder. This is especially true among the unvaccinated. According to recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unvaccinated people are 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people with boosters or additional doses.

Of course, continuing additional precautions helps protect against infections:

  • Wear a mask. Masks are a simple, effective way to shield yourself and others from spreading viruses through respiratory droplets.
  • Practice social distancing. Stay at least 6 feet from others.
  • Wash your hands regularly. Frequent handwashing can help protect against many infections, including the flu and common cold.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Keeping your hands away from your face reduces your risk of germs entering your body.

Remember that it’s not too late to get your annual flu shot or COVID-19 vaccine. To find out where to get a COVID-19 vaccination or booster near you, visit the New Jersey COVID-19 Information Hub.