COVID tracker: How to deflect disease? Your nose knows!

  • COVID hospitalization numbers have been relatively steady for a month but other respiratory diseases are filling New Hampshire hospital beds. Monitor—Courtesy

Granite Geek
Published: 12/11/2022 10:00:37 AM

As New Hampshire’s hospitals continue to face an onslaught of patients with respiratory problems including COVID – there are no empty beds in any of the state’s pediatric ICU units – a new study shows one weird trick to increase our odds of not becoming one of those patients.

Before I tell you the one weird trick, a confession: I have been repeatedly incorrect in print about the common cold in winter. Repeatedly, as in maybe 20 times over the years.

My excuse is that lots of knowledgeable people were also misguided. Nonetheless, it’s embarrassing to have to backtrack after decades of climbing on my high horse and mansplaining that “your mom was wrong – cold weather doesn’t give us colds.”

The traditional explanation for why everybody gets colds and flu in winter, the one I have spouted for years, will sound familiar after going through seasonal COVID spikes: We all go indoors when it’s cold and spread germs among ourselves. It’s not that low temperature does anything physical to us, we said, it’s that low temperatures change our habits.

There are good reasons for that opinion, mind you, including a famous analysis of life on Arctic islands where the local population stayed healthy in sub-zero temperatures until a ship arrived from the outside world, after which everybody got sick.

But a new paper in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has found that low temperatures do more than that.

“Our study points to a biological root cause for the seasonal variation in upper respiratory viral infections we see each year, most recently demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” paper co-author Benjamin Bleier, director of Otolaryngology Translational Research at Mass. Eye and Ear, said in a statement.

Our nose, as I have learned after reading the paper, has an innate immune response to invasions by bacteria or viruses. It involves billions of tiny fluid-filled sacs called extracellular vesicles that are released to surround and attack the germ. But when the nasal passage gets colder, the quantity of vesicles that are released declines for complex chemical/biological reasons, and the efficacy of antiviral proteins also weakens.

In other words, when we inhale cold air, our defense gets weaker and it becomes easier for aerosolized virus or bacteria riding on that air to make it past our nose and head down toward the lungs.

Cold weather didn’t create sickness for those Arctic residents but it did prime them to be extra vulnerable when germs were brought in from the outer world.

What this means for you and me is that we need to keep our nasal passages warm. And how do we do that when walking in the cold?

Wear our COVID mask, of course. And make sure it covers our nose.

That’s it – that’s the weird trick. The thing people have been telling us to do for almost three years! Not so weird, really.

Masks, it seems, work in two ways. They physically block most floating viruses but also protect the ability of our nose to fight off any viruses that sneak in. So I’m doubly convinced to keep wearing them.

The state’s COVID numbers have stayed relatively flat so far this winter but isn’t going away, with hospitalizations reported by the N.H. Hospital Association bouncing between 70 and 100 for the past month. Influenza is picking up sharply as estimated by the Department of Health and Human Services from two data points – the flu isn’t directly measured – although still well below what is considered the epidemic threshold.

Then there’s RCV, the viral disease that has become unusually dangerous and widespread this fall, especially in children. I don’t know of a marker about its prevalence except for that alarming pediatric ICU figure, which has been at zero unoccupied beds for several weeks.

Combine all these respiratory diseases and you’ve got full hospitals, overworked staff and lots of sick or worried people. It behooves us all to not make things any worse than they are.

So mask up, people. Your nasal passages will thank you.


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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