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January 29, 2016
Cold and Flu

It’s easy to find something good to say about every season – except flu season. When the cold weather comes, so do the sniffles, aches, coughing, fevers and general nasty misery. UGH!

This year is worse than usual and the usual is miserable. It started 5 weeks earlier than normal and is widespread in 42 of the 50 states and 11 of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories. Moreover, according to experts, the season hasn’t even peaked. Typically, influenza peaks in January.

Why? Why is the coldest part of the year, the most likely time to catch the flu? Scientists are still mystified.

Part of the reason is the environment. People tend to stay indoors in closed up buildings, sharing warm air and sneezes. Children go to school in fall and winter, and unfortunately are not always the most hygienic little beings. (Additionally, sad and sick kids have a tendency to cuddle and infect their parents.) Indeed, this year’s season began in October in the Southeast, before temperatures really started dropping.

Scientists are still trying to understand why cold weather encourages flu outbreaks. Source – Wikipedia

Even if you are not inside, the flu virus spreads more rapidly in low humidity and colder air is usually drier. Another reason is as simple as snot − mucus, which normally flows and clears out contaminants, becomes thicker in cold weather. It can’t clear out the virus as easily.

Scientists have looked for deeper reasons for why flu is so contagious in cold weather, but for a while it was very difficult. They needed animals for testing and most lab animals don’t catch the flu the same way humans do. Mice don’t catch the same strains people do and they don’t infect each other. The only animals that scientists could use were ferrets and ferrets are comparatively expensive. They also get cranky when sick and bite.

Then, in 2007, scientists discovered an old 1918 army report where scientists used guinea pigs. With the help of a lot of sniffling guinea pigs we have learned that temperatures lower than 60˚ hardens the coating of flu viruses, protecting it. In cold temperatures, the viruses float until they lodge in a nice cozy lung where the cover melts and the disease can make itself at home. In warmer weather, the mushy cover offers no protection, so the exposed virus dries out.

Most animals don’t catch flu like people – but ferrets and guinea pigs do. Poor things! Source – Wikipedia

Now scientists are studying how to destroy the virus’s protective covering. Until they do, we will have to get our shots, cover our sneezes and give thanks for those drippy-nosed little ferrets and guinea pigs.

About This Blog

The column, “Weather Whispers,” is authored by James Garriss and Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologists and weather addicts!  Whether you enjoy the science of weather or the fascinating folklore or just fun weather phenomena, it’s probably covered by these weather watchers!