Simply Scientific: Can you get sick from being cold?

You’ve probably heard it before: Don’t go outside without a scarf, you’ll get sick! Make sure you wear thick socks and gloves, you get sick from the extremities! 

We’ve all heard that being cold makes you sick. But is that true?

The short answer is no. When you get sick, it’s because you caught a virus or bacteria.

Basically, a cold is an upper respiratory tract infection. The most common culprit for this infection is the rhinovirus, a common virus that replicates quickly in the nose and then goes down to infect your throat. This makes you cough, and can sometimes lead to ear and sinus infections. You may also get a fever and fatigue as your body fights against the virus.

This “common cold” virus is quite easy to catch. Unlike many bacteria and viruses that are only transmissible in certain ways—think about how HIV can only be transferred through bodily fluids—rhinoviruses are airborne.

This means they can spread through droplets in the air—like when someone coughs or sneezes—and enter through your mouth, eyes, or nose.

It can also spread through hand-to-hand contact; for example, if you shake hands with someone infected who coughed into their hand and then you touch your eyes, you’re likely to catch the virus.

In short, to catch a cold, you need to be exposed to someone else who has a cold. No virus, no illness.

So why do people think you’ll get sick if you are cold?

The answer lies in the effect that cold temperatures have on viruses, human bodies, and our behaviour.

Being cold weakens your immune system, making it harder for your body to resist infection when you are exposed to viruses.

It has also been shown that rhinoviruses replicate faster when it’s cold, making it more likely that you will be exposed to it.

In addition, when it’s cold outside, you’re probably going to spend more time indoors, surrounded by other people who may be sick.

Indoor humidity also plays a role in getting sick: when it’s humid, viruses can attach to water droplets; since heaters dry out the air, the virus is more prone to infect you instead. Heaters also dry out your sinuses, and a lack of nasal mucus makes it harder for your immune system to fight off infection.

Overall, the combination of low humidity and low temperature makes viruses last longer and your immune system weaker, both of which together may get you sick.

So, can you get sick from being cold?

The long answer is yes, but only because cold and dry environments increase the likelihood of you catching whatever virus or bacteria you’re exposed to.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


The food industry is trying to kill me

Those who are physically unable to eat gluten can’t rely on incomplete and false labels

In July 2018, I was given two choices by my doctor: either I join high-profile celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Lay Gaga in their gluten-free diet fad, or I continue eating gluten and destroy my small intestine. I was diagnosed with celiac disease, meaning that whenever I consume any food product that contains gluten, my immune system is triggered and begins to attack my small intestine, causing physical pain, and the inability to absorb nutrients, leading to vitamin deficiencies and anemia.

Following a gluten-free diet, whether to lose weight or to “live a healthier lifestyle,” has become popular. With high-profile celebrities praising their gluten-free diet, which is aimed at reducing the chance my intestine turns into a balloon, gluten-free foods have become much more common in the aisles of your local grocery store.

While the increasing amounts of gluten-free options in stores may seem like a good thing––especially for those of us who suffer from wheat-related allergies––it really isn’t. I believe food companies aren’t taking the risks of cross contamination seriously enough. Food products labelled “gluten-free” still contain traces of gluten, which won’t affect someone who is only gluten-free to lose weight but will have negative effects for celiac patients.

Since my diagnosis, I have tried my best to stay as gluten-free as I can in order to live my life as pain-free as possible. However, the gluten-free culture that we’re living in is leading me to accidentally consume gluten at least once a week––and it’s causing me extreme physical pain.

In the six months following my diagnosis, it’s happened too often that I’ve eaten something labelled gluten-free only to later read the ingredients and discover that the product may contain wheat. The food industry doesn’t seem to understand that gluten-free food is not just for people who want to be healthier and lose weight––some of us need to be gluten-free in order to live a normal life.

According to the Government of Canada, in order to be able to label a food item as gluten-free, the product must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, which is equivalent to 20 grains of sand. While 20 parts per million of gluten seems like nothing, Very Well Health notes that gluten consumption as low as 50 milligrams per day––which is equivalent to around 1/70th of a slice of bread––can cause intestinal damage to those with celiac disease.

This idea that gluten-free is nothing more than a fad is harmful to those of us who suffer from celiac disease. Food industries are trying to hit a new market, and while they may have good intentions, they aren’t being careful enough to ensure that their “safe” products don’t actually contain gluten.

In a perfect world, gluten-free foods would only be produced in purely gluten-free facilities to ensure that there are no risks of cross contamination. However, no matter how much I would love for this to happen, expecting companies to be willing to spend the time and resources needed to create products that are 100 per cent gluten-free is just wishful thinking. Instead, when producing gluten-free items, the food industry should label how many gluten parts per million the product contains.That way, those of us with celiac disease can decide if it is worth the risk.

Graphic by Ana Bilokin


There is nothing funny about losing your memory

Alzheimer’s is more than just the punchline to a dark joke, and should be taken more seriously

I started my year by reading Lisa Genova’s critically acclaimed novel, Still Alice. Mostly known as the motion picture that awarded Julianne Moore with a long overdue Academy Award, Still Alice is the story of Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor at Harvard University, and her journey with early onset Alzheimer’s.

I remember watching the film for the first time in 2015. I was completely awed by Moore’s performance, and how she perfectly conveyed every bit of pain, confusion, and disorientation Alice felt once diagnosed.

Throughout the movie though, all I could think about was wanting to read Alice’s feelings, rather than watch them. I wanted to read through her thought process, and how she was deeply affected by her diagnosis. I wondered how a linguistics professor goes from retaining every bit of information concerning language, to forgetting where she was while out for a run.

The reason why I wanted so desperately to read about Alice’s journey was partly for my love of books, and partly because I wanted to understand Alzheimer’s, and see beyond the defeated expression people sport on their faces once the topic is brought up.

What struck me most was Alice’s stream of thought when she was first diagnosed. “She wished she had cancer instead,” Genova writes. “She’d trade Alzheimer’s for cancer in a heartbeat… and while a bald head and a looped ribbon were seen as badges of courage and hope, her reluctant vocabulary and vanishing memories advertised mental instability and impending insanity. Those with cancer could expect to be supported by their community. Alice expected to be cast out.”

My initial reaction was horror and disbelief. Why would someone ever wish upon themselves a disease as daunting as cancer? But as I continued to read on, I started to understand where the character was coming from. With cancer, there is always a slight chance of survival, of beating the odds, of overcoming the dying cells and coming out victorious. Compared to that, Alzheimer’s seems like a dead-end.

When cancer is brought up in a conversation, voices become hushed and superstitious people begin knocking on wood, almost burning incense to avoid an Evil Eye wishing this disease upon them. Well, that’s how they do it back home in Lebanon anyway.

When one forgets the definition of a word, why they opened the fridge in the first place, or finds themselves repeating something they said not too long ago, people chime in, joking about probable Alzheimer’s.

As I get older, I realize how unfortunate it is that mental illnesses are either joked about, ignored, or never taken seriously. Most of the time, anything regarding a person’s mental state is brushed off, which explains why a disease like cancer is considered more worrisome than Alzheimer’s.

In my opinion, it all stems back to the fear of the unknown. Personally at times, when I find myself in fearful situations, sarcasm and jokes help me cope. While it certainly explains why mental illnesses are often made fun of, it does not excuse it one bit. Because let’s face it, Alzheimer’s is a monster. We do not know how to deal with fluctuating sadness, memory loss, and everyone looking at us, urging us to be ‘normal,’ whatever in the world that means.

Cancer is believed to be easier, because tumours are visible and can be treatable, lest they be metastatic. Alzheimer’s is a hopeless case. Once you’re diagnosed, as Genova writes, “your brain is oatmeal.”

Graphic by @spooky_soda

Student Life

The healthy side with Fardad

The human balance: How does our body achieve balance?

The human body is a crazy, fascinating thing. It works hard to keep all its systems balanced.  As students, we know it’s not easy to be balanced.  Let’s look at how the human body works, and how it is able to keep that balance.

As with many other complex life forms, humans are made of living biological units called cells. Cells are basic units of life—all living things are made up of one or more cells.

  • Humans are made up of more than 30 trillion cells—of many different types. Your muscle cells and brain cells are worlds apart.
  • Similar cells in your body with similar functions and structures work together to form tissue, like muscle tissue or nerve tissue. Tissues work together to do a particular job. For example, your heart pumps blood throughout your body, and your lungs oxygenate your blood. These tissues are collectively called organs.
  • Different organs also work together. Your circulatory system, which includes your heart, your blood and blood vessels, and your lungs, transports nutrients and oxygen through your body, among other functions. These organs are collectively called organ systems.
  • Finally, an organism is a collection of organ systems working together to form an entity, such as humans, animals, plants, fungi or bacteria.

As you see, the human body is a very complex system. All humans are formed from a marriage between two cells: a sperm and an egg.  Doesn’t it make you wonder how all these different types of cells, tissues, organs and organ systems cooperate and coordinate with each other in almost perfect harmony? How did we develop to be this complex machine with a high cognitive function?  And what happens when a part in this complex machine fails?

Let’s define health and disease. A human is healthy when all these parts work well and in harmony with each other. This is called homeostasis—keeping a relatively stable environment, suitable for continual maintenance and growth. The keyword here is relatively, which is important because, depending on the specific system, the body is tolerant towards some turbulence. For example, your body can tolerate a dramatic change in external temperature. When the environmental temperature changes suddenly, your body will immediately work to compensate the negative change and return your body to a favourable temperature.

You have hardwired mechanisms that counterbalance negative changes in your body. Some of these changes encompass a relatively generous range, as with temperature, but some encompass a much narrower range. For instance, blood pH (i.e. its acidity) is tightly controlled between 7.35 and 7.45. Your body keeps a close eye on these levels. A sudden change in pH can be fatal: think alcohol intoxication, as an example. If you binge drink too fast, there may be no coming back. Unfortunately, this is not as uncommon as we’d like to think.

Basically, for all intents and purposes, homeostasis means health. A severe deviation from a homeostatic state causes unease… so we call it a disease.  Diseases can be caused by a multitude of sources. It can be external such as viruses, bacteria and fungi or internal such as cancer, genetics and old age.

Fardad is a science student here at Concordia. He wants to share his research and learning about the science field with the Concordia community.

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