When the temperature outside the window gets colder, we begin to wrap ourselves in warm blankets and voluminous scarves, we prefer to stay at home more often and start looking for more authentic TV shows.
But what happens to our body? Why does the body react to cold this way and not otherwise? We figure out if there is anything useful in the cold weather.
Windburn, frostbite, hypothermia
If a person is in the cold for a long time, of course, nothing may happen to him. But it can happen, because there are enough conditions due to low temperatures.
Windburn, for example, occurs when the skin loses its natural oils due to exposure to cold temperatures and low humidity. Most often, the skin becomes red, dry, and itchy, and sometimes it becomes swollen and warm.
Separately, experts talk about “windburn”, in which everything happens to the skin, but in sunny weather. Since snow and ice can reflect up to 80% of UV rays, and wind reduces the skin’s natural UV protection, the risks increase markedly.
And in the cold, frostbite can occur – a condition in which the skin and tissues freeze. It usually starts in the fingers and toes, ears and nose, where there is less blood.
The good news is that the body is sure to give us a warning signal: if the skin turns red and you feel tingling or numbness in this area, you need to get into a warm room as soon as possible.
Otherwise, the risk of deep frostbite and damage to tissues and blood vessels increases, in which it will no longer be possible to do without the help of a doctor.
Prolonged exposure to cold can also lead to hypothermia. Or, as this condition is also called, hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body loses heat faster than it produces, so the temperature begins to drop rapidly (usually below 35 degrees).
All this can lead to the fact that organs and systems find themselves in a state of shock, increasing the risk of a heart attack and even death.
There is evidence that in the cold season, mortality from heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular causes increases to 70%. The main symptoms of hypothermia are tremors, retarded speech, slow breathing, lack of coordination, and confusion.
Surprisingly, people can experience hypothermia at a relatively cool, but not cold temperature – from minus 1 to minus 10 degrees. And especially if they are wet or, even worse, immersed in cold water, because in water the body loses heat 25 times faster than in air.
Why do we shiver and sniff in the cold
In the cold, we primarily shiver. And it’s not just that, because fast muscle contractions are one of the ways our body can generate heat. Here, goose bumps can appear on the skin – a kind of evolutionary echo of the times when we were covered with a thick layer of wool.
They are stimulated by the hypothalamus, an area in the diencephalon that triggers the body’s “heating” reactions to keep vital organs warm for as long as possible.
We also start sniffing, because a runny nose, oddly enough, can also protect us from the cold. As part of the respiratory tract, the nose plays a key role in heating, moisturizing and purifying the air we breathe.
So when it gets cold and dry air, it instantly increases mucus production to create a better environment.
Cold air can also cause shortness of breath and wheezing, irritating the lungs. Although this, in fairness, primarily concerns people with asthma, bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and only then everyone else.
Well, let’s not forget that in late autumn and winter, even without frostbite, our skin is under threat. As moisture levels drop, it becomes increasingly dry and flaky if not given extra care.
This is why the American Skin Association, for example, recommends using moisturizers more often on exposed skin.
Useful (and sometimes not obvious) properties of cold
For a start, a good dream. Research shows that when we fall asleep, our body temperature begins to drop naturally. However, people with insomnia do not seem to be able to properly regulate their body temperature, resulting in difficulty falling asleep.
Experimenting with “cooling caps” worn over the head of insomniacs suggests that cold temperatures have a positive effect on sleep quality.
On the other hand, scientists found that people with sleep apnea, for example, had better sleep quality in a cool room, but their symptoms worsened. And this is also worth bearing in mind. Modern recommendations agree that the optimal temperature for a bedroom is 15-19 degrees.
Cold has fat-burning properties (although, as we recall, for most people this shouldn’t be the goal at all). True, not all, but only brown (but this is true even for moderately cold temperatures).
And burning fat stimulates shivering from the cold: in the process, the hormone irisin is released, which, according to some reports, in 15 minutes of shivering can have an effect like an hour’s workout. Although, to be honest, we would advise you to treat this information with a share of healthy irony.
Finally, pain management. Ice and cold compresses have traditionally been used for bumps and bruises. Science confirms that exposure to cold can be effective in reducing pain, but notes that it is best used in combination with medications and other therapies (and only after consulting a doctor).
And then there is cryotherapy, a controlled temperature treatment that is used to reduce pain and inflammation in conditions such as rheumatism, muscle and joint pain, and fibromyalgia.
While some research suggests that cold is no more effective for inflammation than other recovery options, it does help some people.
Fourth, a sense of belonging. One curious study found that we tend to make longer phone calls in bad weather, but to fewer people. That is, when it is cold and rainy outside the window, we strive to restore contact with those who matter to us the most.
Why do we get sick more often in winter
For a long time, scientists thought there were two reasons: viruses, which feel better in cold and dry environments, and an increased concentration of people in rooms. But not so long ago, a third reason was discovered – it seems that the cold still lowers the immune system.
This is the conclusion reached by researchers from Yale University, who found that cold temperatures weaken the first line of immune defense of the nose.
They began the experiment by modifying the rhinovirus strain that causes most colds. The modification was necessary in order to “inoculate” the virus in mice, which do not respond well to human viruses.
The scientists then tested how well the cells lining the rodents’ airways fight the virus at different temperatures. And they found that lower temperatures give a slower immune response and a greater susceptibility to infection.
At normal body temperatures, the cells of the mice built up complex defenses, sending warning signals to uninfected cells around them.
The latter, in turn, began to prepare the army from antiviral proteins, which were immediately used to destroy the virus. But at a temperature of 2 degrees and below, the information to neighboring cells reached more slowly, and they themselves were rather weakly defended.
Benefits of a cold shower and drinking water
Indeed, there is evidence that people who take a cold shower are 29% less likely to miss work or school due to illness (and in this study there was no difference if a person stood in the shower for 30, 60 or 90 seconds).
But scientists think that this may be due to the fact that healthy people are, in principle, more inclined to practice cold or contrast showers.
Cold water has the potential to exacerbate headaches in migraine-prone people, but it can also increase performance during sports.
They also say that cool water increases (but only slightly) the number of calories you burn. However, our appetite itself increases in winter.
Something about the ability to get used to the cold
Due to differences in how our bodies look and what they are made of, we feel cold differently, even if we are dressed the same. Tall people tend to freeze harder because they have a larger surface area that loses heat faster.
Also, the loss of heat is influenced by adipose tissue (the more there is, the warmer) and metabolic activity (the higher it is, the – at least in the short term – a person is warmer).
Here’s the good news: we seem to be pretty good at adapting to low temperatures. This is hinted at by an experiment in 2014, in which a group of men had to spend up to three hours a day in a bathtub filled with water at a temperature of 14 degrees for 20 days.
At the very beginning of the study, when diving, they trembled strongly, their heartbeat and metabolism accelerated noticeably, and in general everything that should happen in such a situation happened.
But by the end of the experiment, the tremors during diving almost stopped, some indicators (vasoconstriction, skin temperature) became more stable, there were fewer markers of cold stress in the blood, and the participants themselves reported no discomfort.
But how can you effectively protect yourself from the cold if getting used to it is not part of your plans? The recommendations are simple, like everything ingenious: wear a scarf, hat and mittens when you go out into the cold, and try to return to the warmth as soon as you feel that you are really cold.