8 Ways Cold Weather Changes Your Body

Expect a runny nose, dry skin, and...difficulty getting an erection?

A man outside in cold weather, blowing visible breath into his hands, which are covered by mittens.
Peter Muller/Getty

A dramatic drop in temperature isn’t always fun, but whether you’re a snow sports enthusiast or more of a fireplace fiend, chances are the plummeting temps are giving you a few telltale signs of chilly times ahead — particularly in your own body. If your asthma flares and your palms crack when the weather changes, you’re not alone. Here are seven ways that colder temperatures can affect the body, from good to bad to just plain baffling.

1. Cold Weather Dries Out Your Skin

If you’ve ever lived somewhere with harsh winters, you likely know the feeling of waking up to cracked, scaly knuckles that no amount of moisturizer seems to fix. The outermost layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum, is a sort of protective barrier of cells and fats that performs best when the skin is flush with water. In warmer, humid weather, your skin is better able to hold onto its own water content, but since cold air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, the dried-up, frosty chill drinks up what’s in your skin as the temperature cools.

Meanwhile, winter winds do their own damage — all that harsh blowing can get rid of some of the protective oils on the skin’s surface.

To combat this, your best bet is to use a thick, hydrating moisturizer on any affected spots and be careful not to spend too long in hot showers that will dry you out even more.

2. Cold Weather Increases Your Risk Of Heart Attack And Stroke

Hospitals see more patients come in with heart attacks in the winter than at any other time of year — one study in 2004 called this phenomenon the “Merry Christmas Coronary.” Although factors such as the stress of family gatherings and tasty holiday treats likely contribute to these numbers, the key culprit is a phenomenon called vasoconstriction.

When the nerves in your skin sense the cold, they send a message to your blood vessels telling them to narrow, limiting the travel of blood to the skin, where it can lose precious warmth. Although this is important to maintain your core body temperature, cold-induced vasoconstriction also has the effect of increasing your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, so if you’re someone who’s already at risk for a cardiac event, consider tacking on an extra layer for any prolonged wintertime walks. Vasoconstriction and high blood pressure can also increase your risk of stroke.

3. You’re More Likely To Get Sick In Cold Weather

Though your grandma’s warnings may be seared into your mind, you can’t really “catch a cold” from being exposed to frigid weather for too long. There is, however, a kernel of truth to the old wives’ tale. Cold weather may not be the main cause of wintertime sicknesses, but it primes you perfectly to catch a cold. Some research suggests that spending time in the cold suppresses the immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off seasonal viruses when it does encounter them. And new researchThis is compounded by vasoconstriction; think of the circulatory system as a series of highways — if each one loses a lane, it’s going to take healing blood cells longer to get where they need to go.

4. Cold Weather Helps Burn More Calories During A Workout

A small body of research has shown that exercising in colder temperatures can burn more calories than balmier workouts. That’s because the body needs to use up more of its energy stores to stay warm while moving around in the icy air. But this enhanced calorie burn isn’t the only change to your workout in winter. The cold air also slows down fat burn, thanks to pesky vasoconstriction.

Ultimately, although these differences make for some interesting science facts to share at the gym, neither effect is pronounced enough to truly change the efficacy of your workout routine in significant or long-lasting ways. Your best exercise routine is whatever works for you year-round.

5. Cold Weather Makes It Hard To, Well, Get Hard

Have you ever tried to use your phone in the winter but been unable to move your fingers nimbly enough? When your circulatory system slows down to conserve heat for the important organs at the center of the body, the extremities furthest from your core are the first to lose their share of normal blood flow (better to lose a few fingers, your brain decides, than have your heart stop). It’s why hand and toe warmers were invented, but for some people, there’s one more body part that loses out in this scenario.

Because an erection requires a lot of blood flow, getting and maintaining one while you’re chilly can be a difficult endeavor. Even when less excited, men still may notice some of what’s sometimes called “shrinkage” during the winter, when the testicles retract further into the body to protect their sensitive contents from the cold.

6. Cold Weather Can Irritate Your Lungs

For those already suffering from respiratory conditions, including people with asthma, cold air can exacerbate breathing difficulties. Similar to the way that cold, dry air enables the water content of the skin to evaporate quicker, the fluid lining of the airways can dry out quickly when you’re inhaling the chill. This can make it trickier for the muscles that bring in air to do their work and contributes to a scratchy feeling in the throat. If you’re susceptible to breathing difficulties, a humidifier can help keep cold, dry air at bay when temperatures start to drop.

7. Cold Weather Can Change Up Your Swim

A good old-fashioned polar plunge, when done correctly, has a number of science-backed benefits. First, there’s that blasted-awake feeling you get from the shock of cold water against your skin, caused by the release of adrenaline that some believe can also have anti-depressive effects when experienced regularly. Some research has suggested that the physiological benefits of a cold splash extend into the release of anti-inflammatory factors, though this effect seems to decrease, rather than increase, with repeated exposure. Immune improvement has also been listed as a short-term benefit of exposing yourself to icy water in multiple studies.

There are, however, equally present risks of cold-water immersion. There’s evidence that repeated or long-term exposure to cold water can actually suppress immune function and lead to abnormal fluctuations in the body’s levels of cortisol, a regulatory hormone related to stress.

8. Cold Weather Probably Makes Your Nose Run

Around half of all people experience a runny nose in the cold. Though there’s no consensus on how these blustery boogers come to be, most research seems to say that the rush of fluid is intended to be protective.

Studies as far back as the ‘80s have demonstrated that cold air causes inflammation within the nose that shrinks the nasal cavity, leading to the temporary feeling of stuffiness that sometimes occurs instead of runniness in the winter. Runniness itself is likely caused specifically by the drying effect of cold air, which can sap the moisture from important membrane barriers while swirling around the nose. To maintain the barrier of fluids that protects the sniffer from anything unsavory, the brain triggers the flow of extra fluids through the sinuses — with little regard for whether or not you’ve got tissues on hand.