Have you ever wondered why some people seem to catch a cold after swimming in the rain or braving the cold waters during winter? Many of us have heard the old tale that doing so can make you sick, but is there any truth to this claim? Is it more than just an old wives' tale?
One of the most common reasons people get sick after swimming in cold weather is, quite simply, exposure to the cold. When your body is exposed to low temperatures, it has to work harder to maintain its core temperature. This extra effort can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria when prolonged. The cold can also cause blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow to the extremities and potentially affecting your ability to fight off infections.
The immune system plays a vital role in defending your body against pathogens. Prolonged exposure to cold weather can reduce your immune system's effectiveness, making it easier for viruses, such as the common cold or flu, to take hold. Additionally, the cold and wet conditions can lead to shivering, which further weakens the immune response by draining your body's energy reserves.
Swimming in the rain or cold weather often leads to wet clothing, and when your clothes become damp, they can really drain your body heat. As your body temperature drops, you may become more susceptible to illness. Moreover, damp clothing can irritate the skin and promote the growth of bacteria or fungi, potentially causing skin infections. It is important to ensure that after a cold dip, you always change into dry clothes as soon as possible.
When you swim in public bodies of water, such as pools, lakes, dams or oceans, you come into contact with various microorganisms. Rain can wash contaminants from the environment into these waters. The water may contain harmful bacteria and viruses that can lead to infections when ingested or when they come into contact with your skin or open wounds. Something as simple as common and normally non-harmful bacteria on a pool side could affect you due to your lowered immunity just by simply being in contact with it.
Swimming in cold weather or rain can be a stressful experience on your body, as it tries to adapt to the different conditions. Stress can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness. Additionally, the psychological stress of swimming in unpleasant or cold weather may contribute to feeling unwell- especially if you're not a fan of the cold.
Not everyone who swims in the rain or cold weather will get sick. The more you practice the better you get...-well not always. For some people, it may work and may have positive effects such as a boost in the immune system. This is mostly from frequent short exposures instead of prolonged cold exposure. Personal susceptibility to illness can vary widely from one person to another. Some people have stronger immune systems and may be less prone to getting sick when exposed. It is important to realise that everyone is different and may have different results. However, even the most resilient individuals may fall ill if exposed to extreme conditions for extended periods.
How does this differ from cold water immersion such as ice baths?
Cold water swimming, like ice baths, is typically deliberate and controlled. This where people intentionally expose themselves to cold water for various health and wellness benefits, including improved circulation, reduced inflammation, and mental resilience. Cold water immersion can promote vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) and then vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) upon exiting the cold water, which may enhance circulation and reduce inflammation. Some individuals find these practices invigorating and mentally refreshing and strengthening. Ice baths generally do not exceed 10-17°C and generally stay between 30 seconds to 10 minutes depending on your experience level. Ice bathers often acclimatize and adapt to cold water exposure over a period of time. They gradually build their tolerance to the cold, and their bodies may become better equipped to handle it. This is different from swimming in cold weather or rain, where people might not have the same level of acclimatization or control over the conditions as it may be accidental or involuntary exposure.
Prolonged exposure is usually unintentional- such as falling into water -or not recognising how cold as the person is having fun and constantly in motion generating body heat, but when they stop moving only do they realise how cold they actually are. In cold water swimming and ice baths, the body is typically immersed in cold water, allowing for even cooling of the entire body. In contrast, swimming in cold weather or rain usually involves exposure of the body to cold air and possibly cold rain, which can lead to uneven cooling, especially if wet clothing is involved.
Cold water swimming and ice baths are typically practiced with a purpose and under controlled conditions, while swimming in cold weather or rain may involve accidental exposure and a higher risk of prolonged, uncontrolled exposure to the elements. It is important to have an experienced and knowledgeable trainer/advisor when it comes to ice baths in order to prevent the adverse effects of cold water.
While it may seem like an old wives' tale, there is some basis to the idea that swimming in the rain or cold weather can make you sick. Exposure to cold, weakened immune defences, wet clothing, contact with pathogens, and personal susceptibility all play a role in the potential for illness. It's essential to take precautions if you decide to swim in such conditions, such as wearing appropriate clothing, staying warm, and avoiding prolonged exposure. Remember that staying healthy is crucial, and understanding the risks associated with cold-weather swimming can help you make informed decisions when considering a dip in less-than-ideal conditions.