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January 29, 2016
Cold and Flu

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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

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to “Weather Whispers” by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these articles. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.

Reader Comments

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I had the flu in the winter

I had the flu in the winter of 2009-10. This was when the swine flu was going around but I had the regular flu, the swine flu was a different strand. That was a bad winter where I live so it kept the virus spreading. This year the cold has had alot more staying power so the cold mid-late December and early January means business. It will warm up big time this weekend so I'm going to have a case of an early outbreak of the spring fever. I dont think I'll be the only one having the "spring fever virus" though. We shouldnt be too concerned about this one. Anything to keep me from the flu
Get vaccinated!! Its NEVER too late. Its good to prevent it

Yes, get vaccinated. Every

Yes, get vaccinated. Every year there are two are three strains of flu, so the shot doesn't protect from all strains. This year's shot protects from a couple of strains including the really nasty H3N2 type that is going around.

The flu is everywhere in the

The flu is everywhere in the US. Its only January 7th, the dead of winter isnt even until late January into February. We have a ways to go!! North Carolina is just one of the severely hit. Here the state has seen a 30-40% increase in ER visits from the flu. Ironically, I'm sick now. I was running a fever of 100.3 this morning and my thorats sore, head hurts, and runny nose. I dont have the flu (thank goodness) its just a cold. You know the mess that goes around this time of year.. colds and viruses. I had the flu a few memorable times, 2010 I had a case of it too. The flu is horrible! It makes you just want to lay in bed all day and cry because you're in so much dear awful pain. You cant move, talk or anything. The flu is nothing you mess around with, it can get pretty serious!
The real cold hasent even set in yet, we still have February to watch out for. Thats the worst time to have it, at least in my opinion. This warm week coming up might vanish it a little but things are kinda fuzzy. I hear we have some MAJOR cold on the way as early as late next week? Its not good news for the flu but it is for my son. He's looking for snow haha!

The problem with this year's

The problem with this year's flu is that it doesn't need major cold temperatures, just nights below 50 degrees!

I hope you get to feeling better.


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