Why You Always Get Sick in the Fall

Why You Always Get Sick in the Fall

It’s not just the cold weather.

Autumn: the leaves are changing, the kids are going back to school—and you’re on your fourth sick day this month. “We typically get an uptick of patients in the fall, especially people with chronic lung diseases,” says Joshua Ezell, DO, an internal medicine practitioner with Quivira Internal Medicine and Overland Park Regional Medical Center in Overland Park, Kansas.

But it’s not just people with chronic conditions at risk for getting sick in autumn. Anyone who spends more time inside—and with the weather changing, that’s almost everyone—can catch bugs like the common cold, the flu and other infections. Here are some illnesses that strike more often as the leaves change—and why.

How autumn illnesses happen
Why do more people get sick in the fall? Two main reasons, says Ezell. First, many of these bacteria and viruses are contagious and easily passed from person to person. “When the weather starts getting cold, people spend more time indoors,” he says. "Closer quarters means easier spread of germs."

Second, some of these bugs, like the viruses that cause the flu and the common cold, thrive in lower temperatures. “As the weather cools off, you have better conditions for bacteria and viruses to grow and replicate,” according to Ezell.  

Cold and flu season
As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, certain germs rear their heads more frequently. One of the most common—and most dangerous—is influenza, also known as the flu. The flu is a virus that puts more than 200,000 people in the hospital every year, and kills an average of 23,600 people, mostly over the age of 65.

Flu season peaks in the winter but starts to ramp up in October, smack in the middle of the fall. “The best way to prevent the flu is to vaccinate,” says Ezell. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you get your flu shot before Halloween. That will give your body enough time to develop protection against the virus before flu season really kicks in.

Though not as dangerous as the flu, the common cold can still put you out of commission for a few days. Cold season starts in September and lasts through the winter. Most often caused by rhinoviruses, there’s no vaccine for colds, but you can minimize your risk of either picking one up or spreading it to others by being diligent about washing your hands.

If you have a chronic lung condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or asthma, upper respiratory infections like a cold and the flu could make them worse. And, catching the flu when you have asthma may put you at risk to develop pneumonia.

Close quarters means more illness
Other contagious infections are likely to spread in fall, with kids returning to classrooms and people heading inside.

  • Viral meningitis is an infection of the brain and spinal cord’s protective covering that usually happens in late summer and early fall—back-to-school time. Headache, stiff neck, fever, fatigue and sensitivity to light are common symptoms.
  • Bacterial meningitis is also associated with large groups of people living together, like in college dorms. It is a potentially deadly emergency. The symptoms are similar to viral meningitis, but more severe. Although patients with viral meningitis may be lethargic, they typically lack the altered mental function seen in the bacterial type.
  • Norovirus also spikes in the fall, says Ezell. “That’s another condition more commonly associated with close quarters, like with kids going back to school,” he adds. Norovirus is very contagious and spreads easily from person to person. It causes diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, fever and aches. Most outbreaks happen between the end of fall—November—and the beginning of spring. Norovirus infections usually clear up in one to three days, but you should see a doctor if your diarrhea lasts longer than that, you have bloody stool or you become dehydrated.

Watch your fingers and toes
Do your fingers and toes really bother you when the weather gets colder? Do they turn blue? Feel numb? Hurt? Then you may have Raynaud’s disease, a condition that affects about 5 percent of Americans. 

“Raynaud’s is not an infectious disease; it’s a rheumatic condition that’s not fully understood,” says Ezell. When you have Raynaud’s, the blood vessels in your fingers and toes constrict, leading to numbness and pain. It’s brought on by the cold, and even slight temperature changes can trigger a Raynaud’s attack. That’s why it becomes a bigger problem in the fall. 

Raynaud’s isn’t life-threatening, but there is no cure for it. You can reduce symptoms by wearing gloves and socks and using hand and foot warmers in cold weather and air-conditioned environments. You can also wear gloves when taking anything out of the fridge or the freezer. Stress is another trigger of Raynaud’s, so make sure to get regular exercise and look into activities like meditation or yoga.

Stay healthy this autumn
Keeping healthy is pretty simple, says Ezell. “Just remember the basics,” he says. “You should be cognizant of washing your hands and covering your mouth if you cough or sneeze.” Stay away from people who are sick, and if you’re sick, stay home to avoid infecting others. Rest, drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy foods if you come down with the flu or a cold.

And, get your flu shots. Each year’s shot is designed to protect against the strains of viruses experts think will be most common, and it can reduce your risk of getting the flu by 50 to 60 percent in a typical year. If you do get the flu after being vaccinated, it will likely be a milder case.



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