For centuries there has been this belief prevalent around many parts of the world that going out with wet hair or going to sleep with wet hair will give you a cold. While you are likely to feel chilly if you step outside on a cold day without blow-drying your hair, but nothing much else is going to happen. Colds are caused by several types of viruses and not by wet hair. So unless due to damp hair, you start feeling so cold that you end up with hypothermia, wet hair alone is not going to increase your susceptibility to the common cold. Read on to find out the truth of can wet hair cause a cold?
Can Wet Hair Cause a Cold?
The truth is that the common cold is caused by a virus. Going outside with wet hair will not make you catch a cold unless the cold virus has already infected you.
Studies in Argentina and Germany have discovered that there is a higher occurrence of colds in the winter season. In contrast, in warmer countries such as Malaysia, Guinea, and the Gambia, colds tend to peak during the rainy season.(1)(2)
These studies indicated that the incidence of colds is higher during the cold and wet seasons because people tend to spend more time indoors near one another during such weather. This allows for easy transmission of germs.
There have also been several studies that have tried to determine what happens when the body gets cold or wet, and scientists set up these experiments under supervised laboratory conditions. The body temperatures of the participants were lowered, and they were deliberately exposed to the cold virus.(3)
However, most such studies have proved to be inconclusive. Some of them, though, found that the group whose body temperatures were lowered, were more susceptible to catch a cold, while other studies found that they were not.
Nevertheless, one study that was carried out differently as compared to the others found that there could indeed be some truth to this age-old saying.(4)
The study, carried out by the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff in the United Kingdom, wanted to explore whether getting damp and cold activates the cold virus. Participants of the study were chilled while being monitored under laboratory settings. They then went back to their real lives and mixed with other people, including those who already had a cold virus present in their throat or nose without showing the symptoms yet or without feeling sick. One-half of these participants were made to sit with the feet in cold water for 20 minutes, while the other half sat with their feet in an empty bowl, but with their socks and shoes on, for 20 minutes.
The study concluded that there was no difference in the cold symptoms between the two groups of participants within the first couple of days. After four to five days, though, twice as many participants in the cold water group developed a cold.
Lowered Defenses in Cold Weather
One theory behind how going out with wet hair can give you a cold is believed to be due to vasoconstriction. This means that due to the cold weather, the blood vessels in your nose and throat become narrow. These blood vessels are responsible for delivering the infection-fighting white blood cells to the nasal passage when the cold virus tries to enter the body. However, since the blood vessels are constricted, there are fewer white blood cells that are able to reach the nose and throat. This lowers your defenses against fighting the cold virus for a short time.
Once your hair dries off or you go back indoors, then your body warms up again, causing the blood vessels to dilate. This allows the white blood cells to continue fighting against the virus, but by that time, the virus could have already had enough time to multiply and trigger the symptoms of the cold.
So it is not the chill factor associated with the wet hair that gives you a cold, but the chill factor might have allowed the virus to infect your nose and throat.
How to Prevent Catching a Cold?
Here are some tips on how to remain safe during the cold and flu season and prevent catching a cold.
Frequently Wash Your Hands
Make it a habit to wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds to avoid getting sick. Regularly cleaning your hands helps prevent the spread of germs and infection. You can wash your hands with just plain soap and water, but make sure to pay attention to the spaces between your fingers and scrub under your fingernails as well. Then rinse and dry your hands with a clean towel. If you don’t have access to soap and water, then you can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers instead.(6)
If you already have a cold or cough, then you must wash your hands after coughing or sneezing, especially before having food.
Smoking any tobacco products will cause irritation and further damage your lungs and throat. It can also worsen the existing cold symptoms, which already include a cough and sore throat. Remember that even secondhand smoke can irritate.
An animal study found that smokers have suppressed anti-viral and anti-bacterial response in their bodies, which makes them less capable of fighting against infection.(7)
Avoid Touching Your Face
Viruses and bacteria enter your body through the areas around the mouth, eyes, and nose. This is why it is essential that you avoid touching your face, especially if you are around a person who has a cold or if you have not washed your hands.
Keep Surfaces Clean
It is necessary to clean all household surfaces regularly to keep them free from bacteria and other germs. Viruses are able to survive on surfaces for many hours. Pay close attention to the surfaces and areas that are touched most often and use bleach, soap, water, or disinfectant cleaners for cleaning keyboards, doorknobs, remote controls, desks, toys, countertops, phones, and drawer pulls.
Throw Away Tissues After Use
Many people have a habit of holding onto their tissues, mainly if it hasn’t been used much. There is no doubt that you will be going through a lot of tissues when you have a cold, but it is necessary to throw them away after each use. Even if the tissue has only been used for a small sneeze, it will still continue to harbor the viruses for hours afterward. If the same tissue is then placed on a countertop or table, it will immediately contaminate the surface as well.
So while going out in freezing temperatures with wet hair might cause discomfort, it is unlikely to make you sick. Nevertheless, being cold does increase the chances of catching a cold. Exposure to germs through person to person transmission or by touching surfaces that may have germs is what puts you at risk of falling sick and getting a cold.
The common cold virus gets easily transmitted through the bodily fluids of already infected people. So when someone is sneezing, coughing, or blowing their nose, they are releasing these respiratory droplets of the virus into the air, spreading the sickness.
Going outside with wet hair cannot make you sick, but the cold conditions and the tendency of people to stay indoors during such weather is what increases the likelihood of catching a cold.
- du Prel, J.B., Puppe, W., Gröndahl, B., Knuf, M., Weigl, F., Schaaff, F., Schaaff, F. and Schmitt, H.J., 2009. Are meteorological parameters associated with acute respiratory tract infections?. Clinical infectious diseases, 49(6), pp.861-868.
- Viegas, M., Barrero, P.R., Maffey, A.F. and Mistchenko, A.S., 2004. Respiratory viruses seasonality in children under five years of age in Buenos Aires, ArgentinaA five-year analysis. Journal of Infection, 49(3), pp.222-228.
- @marisfessenden, F. (2020). There is A Scientific Reason That Cold Weather Could Cause Colds. [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/there-scientific-reason-cold-weather-could-cause-colds-180953817/ [Accessed 30 Jan. 2020].
- Johnson, C. and Eccles, R., 2005. Acute cooling of the feet and the onset of common cold symptoms. Family Practice, 22(6), pp.608-613.
- Cardiff University. (2020). School of Biosciences. [online] Available at: https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/biosciences [Accessed 30 Jan. 2020].
- Mathur, P., 2011. Hand hygiene: back to the basics of infection control. The Indian journal of medical research, 134(5), p.611.
- Sussan, T.E., Gajghate, S., Thimmulappa, R.K., Ma, J., Kim, J.H., Sudini, K., Consolini, N., Cormier, S.A., Lomnicki, S., Hasan, F. and Pekosz, A., 2015. Exposure to electronic cigarettes impairs pulmonary anti-bacterial and anti-viral defenses in a mouse model. PloS one, 10(2).