What are the real health consequences of not dressing warmly in cold weather?

More than a century after the germ theory of disease became common knowledge you still here people saying “you’re going to catch your death of cold” when they see somebody walking around in short sleeves or without a jacket in cold weather. Obviously they have more likelihood of catching a cold in a warm indoor environment filled with people than they do running around without a coat in 33 degree (Fahrenheit) weather, BUT… are there any health consequences of wearing too little clothing in cold weather?

Obviously if you go swimming in 0 degree weather you’re at risk for hypothermia, frostbite, and other problems, but for hypothetical construct let’s imagine the temperature, counting wind chill and other factors, is in the mid 40’s Fahrenheit- chilly but well above freezing, and imagine the hypothetical person is healthy but is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Other than discomfort until they come inside, are they at risk for any negative health consequences for not bundling up when it’s dry and above freezing?

Hypothermia is no fun.

Disorientation and confusion. This is how many people die in blizzards; they start doing irrational things.

I once met a guy who wandered around in January in Chicago wearing nothing more than a short-sleeved shirt and ordinary pants. I have no reason to think he was homeless. He was a failed graduate student in math and was attending the same meeting I was.

I seem to recall reading in my anthropology text that Australian aborigines would sleep, nearly naked, in weather that would get as low as 40 F with no ill-effects or even evident discomfort.

But obviously, frostbite and hypothermia are always possible. And I am not convinced that cold weather cannot exacerbate any illness in which your body is trying to elevate the temperature.

One study (sorry no cite yet) indicated that dry and cold air would degrade your nasopharnyx’s (sp) natural ability to combat viral infections. I believe it was because microfissures would open the way through the mucus membranes to the underlying tissue. So that might be a legitimate reason for caution.
I reserve judgment. I regularly walk about in low temperatures with no jacket. But, I am a freak of nature.

The OP seems to be talking more about “chilly” weather (he said mid 40’s) than outright cold, winter, possible blizzard type weather.

IIRC, there was a thread not too long ago about how cold it actually has to be before you can get hypothermia from wearing essentially “jeans and a t-shirt”…let me see if I can find it.

And here it is…though there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how cold it has to be before you can start to feel ill effects from dry air. In water or if you’re wet, it’s a whole 'nother ballgame…as high as 50 air temp if you’re wet, and even warmer water temps if you’re actually in the water.

I suspect that if you’re not staying outside for any extended length of time (like, less than a day, let’s say) and you’re were adequately sheltered and fed beforehand, I don’t think the average person will come close to hypothermia in dry, 40-50 degree weather.

This. Dry 40-50 degrees F simply is not that cold. Heck, 50 degrees is practically jeans and t-shirt weather for me.

Once you get down to real cold - say, 20 degrees or below - and if you add in wind and/or wet, then things get dicey. Frostbite is no fun, nor is hypothermia. It’s not that hard to die if you’re outside overnight in cold weather, even if you’re dressed for it. It’s hard to stay warm in the wind, especially if you’re not moving.

It may not completely be nonsense.
The peak incidence of cold, flu and other respiratory viruses is in midwinter.

Although this may largely be a result of people spending more time indoors (+ all getting together for the holiday season), there is some evidence that vasoconstriction may inhibit respiratory defence. I can’t search for a cite right now, but it was in a journal paper I originally read this.

Having said that, I’m not sure how big a difference wrapping your body up warm would make.

One tragically under-diagnosed health consequence of cool weather – goosebumps.

Until a qualified professional walks in, I’m going with this. Cold air also makes your snot less runny, so you lose the ability to sweep out dirt from your respiratory tract.

Note that no matter how warmly you dress, you still have to breathe in cold air. On this basis I don’t force my kids to put jackets on when they don’t want to.


Every time I go out in cold weather my nose starts leaking super-liquid snot. If what you say is true, then my sinuses are more than compensating by producing lots of low-viscosity snot.

While I have the same wonder as the OP…I grew up in Western ND…and it can get COLD there. One time when I was about 16, tempatures fell to about -60F…and that is NOT wind chill.

There was one guy in town who was in his mid 30’s…no evident health problems. He was stuck in his apartment (car wouldn’t start) and could SEE the grocery store from his apartment window…just a few blocks across an open field.

He was a non-native from a southern state and so he didn’t have winter clothing. he did have jacket and gloves but not wintery.

His roommate said he said that he knew it was very cold out but the store was so close that it was no big deal. He threw on his jacket and gloves.

He made it to the store, bought some stuff and never made it back to his apartment. His roommate had fell asleep but called the police when he woke up. They eventually found him several blocks away in a field frozen dead.

I knew that apartment building. The distance to the store really doesn’t look that far. That could have been me. Maybe not though…I was a native, had winter clothing and when I reached the store probably would have recognised the warning signs…maybe.

That dude dying made me think twice about doing stupid shit in cold weather.

Because the germ theory is only one half. Yes, we know there are viruses and bacteria around that cause you to get a cold or flu. That part is true.

But it’s equally true that all people are not the same when exposed to the same amount of viruses or bacteria (leaving aside contact with a virus mothership): person A slept 8 hours, eats enough vitamin C, has a loving spouse, no stress at job, while person B slept 5 hours, lying awake the rest, eats McD, has trouble at home because of the job, is overworked and underpaid at the job … and bingo, his immune system is measurably lower than person A, and so the same amount of germs results in him getting sick and A staying healthy.

And one of those stress factors is feeling cold. Especially cold feet. I know that Cecil cited a study with people sitting on cold surfaces that seemed to disprove this, but I’m not very convinced:

  • small sample size of about 40 people
  • obviously self-selecting of people who have less problems with exposure to cold (and how much cold a person can bear before feeling cold varies very widely among the population

-other studies do show a marked relation between cold feet and lowered immune response.

You also can’t predict when you will start to feel cold during the day - a sudden gust of wind and a cloud blocking the sunshine, and the temp drops enough to feel chilly - and once you are cold, it takes a long time to get warm again if you’re can’t get inside.

dry and mid40s would have no effect if for a short time (no more than a few days) and the person had calories to burn.

And I am NOT Qualified,
We probably loose so much more H2o warming the cold air we breath that without knowing it we are dehydrating. What we usually refer to as Snotsicles, are just large masses of frozen water hanging of the mustache.
So i will buy into some theory of insult to our respiratory system from cold air causing viruses to enter.
I remember reading about healthy sailors coming to port and them catching all kinds of illnesses other than the bite of the Winchester Goose.

Never kiss your honey
when your nose is runny;
you may think it’s funny,
but it’s snot.

I am in short sleeves today, with a hooded sweatshirt. It was 19 degrees Fahrenheit when I left home. My car is in an integral garage with heat. I drive 15 minutes to work, park, and walk 10 yards to a heated building. Worst case scenario would be car trouble (I’d call AAA from my cellphone).

Generally accepted medical opinion is that “getting a chill” being “underdressed” in weather like the op describes is immaterial to infectious disease risks (although breathing cold air can trigger asthma and the stress of dealing with the cold can trigger a cardiovascular event in an at-risk individual) but even that is in some dispute by those who know the evidence but still hypothesize why the folklore may be true.

The premise of their hypothesis is the same as Hyperelastic’s - cold air might make nasal passages less able to keep mild infections from becoming more symptomatic - but they offer no support other than folklore must have some basis.

You’re at risk of hurting your hand, because every idiot you meet is going to jovially ask, “did you forget to read the weather report today?”, until you finally break down and start punching someone.

A thread from two months ago.