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Can You Really Catch a Cold From Going Outside with Wet Hair?

By Emily Motayed

October 24, 2008


Introduction and Claim that is Being Investigated

Many of our mothers warned us never to go outside in the winter with wet hair because  “you’ll catch a cold!” Other related myths include the statement that being cold, or standing in the cold for a period of time, will cause you to catch a cold. Are those the main reasons why most of us catch the common cold during the cold winter months? If not, when and why did this myth start, and how did it become such a persistent rumor that the majority of us have heard at some point of our lives?


What exactly is the “common cold?”

A common cold, or acute viral nasopharyngitis, is a contagious viral infectious disease that affects the upper respiratory system. It is most commonly caused by rinoviruses, which is of the picornavirus family. Symptoms include a sore throat, runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and cough, yet is usually mild and self-limited and lasts no longer than a week. An absolute cure for this is hard to find, because there are so many strands of the infectious virus that cause the symptoms of a cold, and the best treatments that are out there simply attempt to alleviate the unpleasant symptoms. However, the common cold has been of much interest and study because it affects so many people each year, and although the effects of the infection are not severe, they are extremely bothersome and can interfere with optimal day-to-day functioning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people in the US suffer at least one billion colds each year, and 22 million school days are lost annually because of the common cold.

For more information on the symptoms, treatments, and causes of a common cold, visit



Is This a Common Belief?

Most medicinal and informational websites tend to discredit this myth and group it with all the other “old wives tales.” These websites intend to inform the general public that this information that may have been passed around informally is actually untrue by summarizing and quoting past scientific studies and acknowledging that the cause of a cold is the actual viral infection. However, most of the websites do acknowledge the prevalence of this theory. Questions regarding this claim also pop up on many websites in which Internet surfers are able to impart their own knowledge and which host informal question-and-answer pages. Many Internet surfers support the claim that going outside with wet hair or being cold directly correlates with catching a cold, and this proves how widespread and engrained this belief is. To see the Internet surfer answers, click

TIME Magazine (1981) shows how widespread this belief is by stating “the belief that dampness, chilliness and drafts cause colds, through debunked repeatedly in controlled experiments is still widely held—and energetically perpetuated by parents in cautioning children.”

For the TIME article, click,9171,953215-2,00.html


How Do You Get a Cold?

The incidence of colds rises during the fall and winter seasons, which is why most people automatically assume that the temperature and wetness outside influences the increased susceptibility to a cold. However, contagious viruses spreads a cold, and this was discovered back in the 1930’s. When Dr. Christopher Andrewes visited the Rockefeller Institute in 1931, he saw a scientist inoculating chimpanzees and humans with bacteria-free remains of nasal secretions from cold patients. The chimpanzees and the humans subsequently developed colds themselves, which ascertained that the cold infections were due mostly to filterable bacteria, or viruses. Throughout the 1940’s at the Common Cold Unit in Salisbury, England, this virus theory was perfected and it was discovered that more than 200 different viruses cause the symptoms which most attribute to a cold.

To see more information on Dr. Andrewes’ studies visit


The reason why the incidence of colds go up so much during the colder months of the year is because that is when the most people stay in and are forced to be in much closer contact with each other, which eases the transference of contagious viruses such as the ones that cause the cold.

Dr. Gwaltney’s research in the 1970’s supported this theory, since most peak rhinovirus seasons were linked to overcast, wet spring and fall days, which forced children to stay inside and have more contact and possibilities to infect their parents and elders around them.

For more information, go to




Origin of the Theory that Being Cold Causes a Cold

The origin of this myth can be attributed to the 1st century AD, in which Celsus, in his classic medical work “De Medicina,” stated that “winter provokes headache, coughs, and all the affections which attack the thorad, and the side of the chest and lungs.”

For the full “De Medicina” text, go to


Later, in relative modern medical history, Louis Pasteur noticed that chickens were immune to anthrax. He concluded that the high body temperature of a chicken (which is around 44 degrees Celsius) was the reason for the chicken’s immunity to the disease. His theory was seemingly proved when he lowered the chicken’s temperature to 37 degrees Celsius and the chicken consequently contracted anthrax. This was one of the first recorded experiments between the effects of temperature and the susceptibility to a disease—even though anthrax is a bacterium unlike the cold virus, and the fact that Pasteur was able to induce the chickens into receiving anthrax at a lower temperature supported the theory that being colder will increase your chances of catching a disease.


What may support this theory is the actual feelings individuals feel when their hair is wet or when they are cold. Wet hair sometimes lowers body temperature in order to make you feel colder, and catching a cold is often attributed to this. Also, colds are much more prevalent and ubiquitous during the winter months, which may lead people to believe that the lower temperature levels are the cause of the rise in the incidence of colds.

For more information on Pasteur’s experiment,  go ahead to


Where’s the Scientific Evidence?

Though out the years, following Pasteur’s initial foray into this field, there have been countless experiments that attempt to solidify the correlation between being cold and actually catching a cold. Pasteur’s experiment was replicated with animals and showed that chilled monkeys were more likely to get polio, and chilled mice and rabbits were more susceptible to pneumonia. Yet, does this theory hold true for chilled humans and their susceptibility to the common cold virus?


The Common Cold Research Unit in Salisbury used volunteers to test the effects of temperature on the susceptibility to a cold. Volunteers were paid to allow researchers to drip a bit of infected mucus into their noses, and the experimental group of volunteers was assigned to bathe and then walk around the hospital in wet socks and bathing suits for at least a half an hour while the control group was not given this similar task. Although many of the wet and cold participants had a decrease of degrees in body temperature directly following the stimulus, they were no more statistically likely to catch a cold in the following week than their counterparts who were not forced to parade around wet and cold. This led to the conclusion that being drenched does not affect the rate that you will catch a cold once exposed to the mucus infection. However, this does not exactly reflect what truly happens in the real world. People do not have mucus dripped directly into their nose, therefore there could be a possibility that being wet increases your chance of actually contracted the mucus infection.



A larger and diverse replication of this experiment took place in 1950’s Chicago, in which hundreds of participants sat with very little clothing on in a 60 degree room before being given an infected mucus drip, while the others sat in a freezer for two hours. It turned out that the 253 freezer participants caught a cold at the same rate as the 175 members of the hot control group in the following weeks. Once again, this has the same limitation as the previous mentioned study, in the sense that there could be some connection between being cold and therefore being more likely to catch the infection, and research needs to be done to see if there is a connection between temperature and being more likely to catch the infection rather than just seeing if there is a connection between temperature and actually having the infection develop into a cold.

For more information, go to


A more recent study also supports this. Johnson and Eccles (2005) study tested the hypothesis that acute cooling of the feet would cause the onset of the common cold symptoms. 180 healthy subjects were randomly assigned to either a group that was given a foot chill or in the control group that were not. All the subjects were then asked to score their common cold symptoms, both before and after the chilled procedures, twice a day and for the following five days. The results showed that 13 out of 90 chilled subjects reported they were suffering from a cold in the days after the procedure compared to the five out of 90 control subjects. There was no concrete evidence that chilling caused an acute change in symptom scores, therefore the chilling of the feet causes the onset of common cold symptoms in about 10% of subjects, but this was not statistically significant. This can be generalized to show that being cold does not influence the onset of common cold symptoms, yet it does not see if there is a connection between temperature and actually contracted the infection.

To see the full text of this study, go to


A New York Times (1987) article describes an experiment that colds do “fly” and are spread by transmission of the infection that was done by Dr. Elliot C. Dick, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. In his experiment, he took eight men with cold viruses and paid them to play poker with 36 other healthy men. The experimental group of the men wore restraints so that they would not be able to touch their noses or face. The other, control group did not wear these restraints. The results showed that fewer of the poker players that were wearing restraints caught a cold, 10 or 18 against 12 of the 18 of the control group. However, these results were statistically insignificant and was used to prove that transmission of colds are certainly through contact between people, rather than contact between an inanimate object that carries the infection.

For the article, click




Although there is no concrete scientific proof of a direct connection between being cold and wet and increased susceptibility to the common cold, cold weather definitely does have an indirect effect and also more research needs to be done, as there is relatively few scientific studies on this claim. When it is cold, more people are forced to stay inside and be in close contact with each other, which contributes to the rapid transferring of these contagious viruses. Although these studies show that the only way to catch a cold is through direct exposure to the virus, the temperature of the environment certainly has an indirect side effect on this exposure. Therefore, there is no hurt in bundling up in the cold or drying your hair before going out, since that will keep you psychologically warmer as well as maintain your body temperature better, but if you do forget your coat, don’t fear—as long as you don’t touch an infected person, then according to these aforementioned scientific studies, your susceptibility rate to colds will not increase.



"De Medicina." Cultural Heritage Language Technologies (CHLT) Home. 9 Oct.

2008 <>.


Eccles, Ronald and Johnson, Clare. (2005). Acute cooling of the feet and the onset  

of common cold symptoms. Family Practice 2005 22(6):608-613.


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Gruson, Lindsey . " 'You'll Catch Your Death!' An Old Wives' Tale? Well . . .

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Gwaltney, Jack. "Common Cold." Common Cold. 9 Oct. 2008



"National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases." Common Cold, NIAD,

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Scientific Biography." ScienceWorld. 10 Oct. 2008



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early work on cold viruses in the UK." Diseases/Viruses @ 9 July 2007. 10 Oct. 2008 <>.


"Yahoo Answers-- Can You Really Catch a Cold From Going Outside Without a

Jacket?." Yahoo! Answers. 8 Oct. 2008 <www.>.



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