Watching the summer season dissipating creates a welcomed change for many, from the crispness of a late fall morning to the awareness of cold weather—and, of course, snow—in the not-too-distant future. Whether you live in the northern climes, the Midwest, or the southern states, there’s something to be said about scenic beauty of the changing seasons.
But despite its natural magnificence, the end of summer unfortunately brings with it—at least for many of us—something unpleasant: the seasonal cold. We’ve long wondered why we seem to catch a cold every time the weather turns a bit more frigid. Is it because we’re staying indoors more, or is it because the circulated indoor air is drier? Or is it because we’re indoors and sharing the same re-circulated air with more people? Or could it be that, well, it’s just colder?
It turns out that the drop in air temperature accompanying the shift from warmer weather is actually the most frequent culprit, according to researchers at Mass Eye and Ear. As a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, the mission of Mass Eye and Ear focuses on finding cures for upper body maladies, including diseases of the head and neck.
A recent Mass Eye and Ear study supported by funding from Northeastern University and NIH’s National Eye Institute provided a pathway to explore previously understudied aspects of the human upper respiratory system, especially those related to the nose and nasal passages. As pointed out in the Mass Eye and Ear press release on the study results, “(t)he nose is one of the first points of contact between the outside environment and inside the body and, as such, a likely entry point for disease-causing pathogens.”
In fact, researchers several years ago discovered an immune response system embedded in the composition of the nose that, after detecting the presence bacteria being introduced into the nasal passage, reacted to the invading bacteria by releasing proteins to surround and attack the bacteria. This defensive mechanism tends to minimize the infection’s spread deeper into the body by “mopping up” the incoming viruses before they can bind to the nasal cells, thus suppressing infection.
So, while this specialized immune response mechanism normally offers us protection from many forms of viral infection, further study by Mass Eye and Ear researcher Di Huang, Ph.D. led to the observation that colder ambient temperatures result in blunting of the proteins that customarily defuse the bacterial attack. In fact, Dr. Huang’s study, referenced in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, observed that going from room temperature setting to an outdoor setting of about 40 degrees can produce a nearly 42 percent drop in the nose’s ability to fight infection.
The Mass Eye and Ear study results answer the lingering question many of us have about why the summer-to-fall-to-winter seasonal change so often produces a nagging cold. But it also opens the door for more detailed research into the development of therapeutic approaches to dealing with inhaled viruses. As the study points out, this newly found immune system intelligence could pave the way for development of, say, a nasal spray engineered specifically to temporarily increase the bacteria-fighting proteins in the nose to block a cold…or perhaps eliminate it rapidly.
And, as we continue to resolve ourselves to dealing with coronaviruses as a way of life, it’s likely that continued breakthroughs of this type – although they sound simplistic – might just offer rapid response approaches that can minimize massive pandemic-type disruptions. We’ll seem but in the meantime, it’s good to know that the welcomed crispness of colder weather has a downside.
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