Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Can Temperature Swings Really Make You Sick?

What warm spells and cold snaps mean for your health

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readFeb 6, 2020

GGlobal warming continues to push the mercury up across the planet. But even before climate scientists started sounding alarms about rising temperatures, winter warm spells were a well-known phenomenon. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, brief winter warm-ups often happen during the last week of January.

While most people appreciate a break from the cold weather, some may have noticed an uptick in common colds and other health complaints during these warm spells. This association isn’t backed up by much hard data. But experts say there’s reason to believe that drastic seasonal temperature changes could leave some people more susceptible to infections.

“Nothing affects everybody the same way, but some individuals seem to have an immune response to big changes in temperature or barometric pressure,” says Dr. Bradley Chipps, past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, and medical director of respiratory therapy at Sutter Health in Sacramento.

Exposure to outdoor allergens may have a lot to do with this. One 2018 study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology found an association between thunderstorms and asthma attacks. The authors of that study speculated that the shift in barometric pressure before a thunderstorm could increase the presence of airborne grass pollens, which can trigger an asthma episode. Chipps says that whenever big and abrupt swings in temperature or barometric pressure occur — including during winter warm spells — this can cause a spike in levels of one or more plant allergens. “Allergies stress the immune system,” which could raise a person’s risk for illness, he says. Allergies also create inflammation in the nasal passages and airways, and that inflammation can make it easier for infectious pathogens to set up shop and make a person sick, he adds.

Even if a warm spell doesn’t lead to an increase in airborne allergens, a break in the winter cold may coax people outdoors and into woods, parks, or other natural environments where they’re more likely to encounter plants or pollens. If these exposures fire up their asthma or allergies, that could leave them…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.