The Sound of Science - "Flu Season"

May 3, 2019

K: I’m Kate Powers from NIU STEM Outreach here in the studio with Jeremy Benson and this is the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

J: Kate, I have a question from Jake today and I think he is just as relieved as we are that this long winter is over. Jake wants to know why we get sick more often in the winter than we do in the spring or summer.

NIU STEM Outreach

K: Jake is right, flu season definitely coincides with wintertime. In fact, due to our prolonged winter this year we had a prolonged flu season.

J: In old books it seems like characters go outside in the cold, have a foreshadowing cough, and then die from a mysterious illness. But that's not scientifically accurate is it? So if it isn't the cold that's making us sick what is it?

K: You're right, being cold doesn't give us a cold or flu. What makes us sick is when a cold or flu virus invades our bodies. But the weather definitely contributes to the spread of flu season. One of the simplest explanations is that the cold weather keeps us cooped up inside close to one another. The flu and the common cold are very contagious, spreading through the air. If we are all sitting around together breathing the same virus-laced air for months it is much more likely that we are going to catch some bug or another.

J: Virus-laced air? Well, that's a nightmare. I think we should crack a window in here Kate, get some fresh air in the room.

K: You'll never look at our stuffy office the same, will you Jeremy? In addition to being in close contact with viruses the cold weather also positively affects the spread of viruses in other ways. Arid, cold air dries out mucous membranes, like our eyes, nose and mouth. Drier membranes are less effective at keeping viruses out of our bodies. Researchers have found that viruses have a coating that protects them, and in cold air that coating is hard. But once the viruses enter your respiratory tract the coating melts and the virus attacks your system. In warmer weather the coating is less protective. The lack of sunshine also aids in virus multiplication. Less sunshine means less ultraviolet rays which can kill or damage the viruses. So the gloomy days don't just bum us out -- they also allow viruses to thrive and make us sick.

J: Well, Kate, I can say I am very very glad that winter is over and we have moved on to sunnier warmer days. 

K: Keep those questions coming folks to stemoutreach@niu.edu. This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

K: Where you learn something new every day.