“Put your coat on, or you’ll catch a cold.”
At one time or another, most parents have said this—perhaps while struggling to put a winter coat on a stubborn toddler, or while trying to convince a teenager to bundle up.
So, is it true? Two Spectrum Health pediatricians agree the answer is an emphatic, “No.”
“The bottom line is that cold does not cause a cold,” said Daniel McGee, MD, pediatric hospitalist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “Mom’s not going to win those arguments if she says put your coat on or you will catch a cold.”
William Bush, MD, pediatrician-in-chief at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, agrees.
“It is not true,” Dr. Bush said. “One of the issues we have is that this is a long-standing multi-generational response that many of us have heard from our mothers and our grandmothers. The reality is we catch viruses and bacterial infections from other people, not from the cold air outside.”
So, what’s the harm if children go out into the cold weather without proper clothing?
As long as it’s for a short time, not much harm will come to them.
“It’s just plain uncomfortable,” Dr. McGee said.
If children have prolonged exposure to the cold, however, they might experience lowered resistance to some infections, he said.
They also risk hypothermia. Symptoms include shivering, clumsy movements, poor mental judgment and cold, pale or grayish skin. These hypothermia-related symptoms require immediate, emergency attention as they can eventually lead to unconsciousness and even death.
Children who enjoy a cold, winter’s day sans-jacket may also experience skin irritation, or in extreme cases, frostbite.
“The amount of time you need to be exposed to the cold in order to suffer effects decreases as temperatures decrease,” Dr. McGee said.
The struggle is real
If you’re a parent who battles with your child over dressing for the weather, you’re not alone, according to Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
As children mature, they want to assert their independence and their own decision-making skills, she said.
“It’s a natural process of development, and we need to provide opportunities for them to explore their independence within a safe environment,” Dr. Cadieux said. “This is a situation where you can look at it and ask, ‘Is it worth the battle? Is this something so significant that I need to stand my ground on?’ This may not be one of them.”
She said parents can explain to their children that if they are not going to dress properly, they’re going to be uncomfortable.
“If they choose to be uncomfortable, that is their choice,” she said.
With toddlers and younger children, there might be something about the way the coat fits that makes them resist. Or there may be significant sensory issues in play.
“It’s important that you have the child come with you to pick out a coat so they can find one that’s comfortable on their body,” she said. “Giving kids some options helps them to be more engaged in the process. It gives them some ownership, saying, ‘I chose this jacket. I’m going to wear it.'”
Dr. Cadieux said there certainly are situations when parents need to set rules based on what children are going to be doing outside, such as going out to play for recess or other extended periods of time, or playing sports during cold weather.
“There are going to definitely be some areas in which we compromise and allow them to experience the natural consequences of their choices, and other areas where as parents you say, ‘You know what? This is not an option. You need to wear this because this is what you’re going to be doing, and if you want to do it, then you need to wear this,’” she said.
Benefits of getting outside
For limited periods of time, in reasonable temperatures and preferably with proper winter wear, it’s best for children to get outside in the cold weather, rather than staying inside all the time, Dr. Bush said.
“When kids are stuck inside for recess, they’re more likely (to get sick) than if they’re outside on the playground,” he said.
There are times when the air temperature, or wind chill, drops so low that children do face danger even for shorter periods of time, Dr. Bush said.
“Absolutely, there is a point of coldness and wind chill that can be damaging to exposed skin,” he said. “Luckily, our schools have safeguards in place … but that’s not often in our climate.”
Area schools do cancel recess, or in some cases even cancel school, to prevent children from having to wait at bus stops in extreme temperatures.
Even newborn babies, if dressed properly, can be outside in the winter. It’s actually safer germ-wise for them to be outside, bundled up in the stroller for a walk, than inside surrounded by a lot of people, Dr. Bush said.
Dr. Bush always reminds parents that for babies under the age of 3 months, their immune system is completely dependent on what was transferred from the mother to the baby before delivery, or the immunity they gain from breastfeeding.
“Besides that, the infant’s system of fighting off infection is very weak,” he said. “So we need to limit their exposure to sick caregivers and other people in their environment, whether it’s daycare, church nurseries or the local store.”
“Ask the person who wants to hold them to wash their hands first or to use hand sanitizer,” Dr. Bush said. “I will tell families to use me as your reason. Tell them the doctor said we’re not allowed to have the baby touch anybody.”
He also reminds parents that children who are buckled into car seats should not wear bulky winter coats or snow suits while strapped into their car seat. Bulky coats prevent the car seat straps from getting tight enough, and don’t allow the chest strap to sit at armpit level.
“Warm up the car beforehand and put on a thin, fleece jacket while they’re in the car seat,” he said. “Have the coat and snowsuit ready to go if they’re heading outside to play.”
Winter might bring added challenges for parents, but with flexibility and preparation, kids of all ages can enjoy the benefits of being outside.
“We have to learn to be flexible both as parents and as pediatricians and to help families weather the winters, with cold and illness, but also the choices kids want to make,” Dr. Bush said.