You can catch cold from the cold: True/False?

Does cold weather give you a cold? The season for both is now upon us which no doubt explains why Peter Riches, Chelsea Turner, Holly Luxton-Russell and Anna Read have all written urging me to address this question. Anna is already certain it is false and wants me to disseminate the fact. I’d gladly do it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky scientists.

Orthodox science used to be convinced that, despite what your grandmother said, you couldn’t catch a cold by being out in cold weather. The root of the common cold was known to be any of several viruses that infect the upper respiratory tract.

The viral cause even neatly explained increased infection in the winter. It wasn’t because of the cold, no, it was because people congregate together during the winter months creating the perfect environment for transmission of disease. Another triumph for science, and on it marched to even greater heights, like discovering how to make a fat-free version of any food (the secret ingredients are lots of sugar and a sprinkling of despair).

But the tide may be turning. Viruses do definitely cause colds, but causation is a funny thing. The virus is what philosophers call a necessary condition — you won’t get a cold without exposure to a cold virus. But it isn’t a sufficient condition — you can be exposed to the virus without getting a cold. That explains those irritating people who never seem to get sick.

Behind any disease lies a number of factors and while the evidence is hardly clear it looks like low temperature may contribute to contracting a cold, perhaps by doing something to the mucous membrane in the nose or by quieting the immune response.

A virus is definitely needed to catch the common cold. If the old guard are right then that’s the end of the story, if the young guns are on to something then cold may make things easier for the virus. This equivocal conclusion may meet a frosty reception in some quarters (sorry Anna), but I’d rather that than pass on a tissue of lies.

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