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Why The Flu Virus Is More Infectious In Winter

Why The Flu Virus Is More Infectious In Winter

The reasons why it's important that you keep washing your hands and stay warm this winter.

Why The Flu Virus Is More Infectious In Winter

A team of scientists at the National Institutes of Health have revealed why the flu virus is more infectious in cold winter temperatures than during the warmer months.

In cold temperatures, the virus’s outer covering hardens to a rubbery gel that shields the virus as it passes from person to person, the researchers have found.

In warmer temperatures, the protective gel melts to a liquid phase, which isn’t tough enough to protect the virus against the elements, and so the virus loses its ability to spread from person to person.

For the research Dr. Zimmerberg, chief of NICHD’s Laboratory of Cellular And Molecular Biophysics and his colleagues found that at temperatures slightly above freezing, the virus’s lipid covering solidified into a gel.

As temperatures approach 16 degrees Celsius, the covering gradually thaws, eventually melting to a soupy mix.

While the cooler temperatures, cause the virus to form the rubbery outer covering that can withstand travel from person to person once in the respiratory tract, the warm temperature in the body causes the covering to melt to its liquid form, so that the virus can infect the cells of its new host, explains Dr Zimmerberg.

3 ways to protect your health

It’s a reason why hand-washing with soap is so important to slow the spread of the disease, as soap not only removes the virus from your hands, it can destroy the structure of the virus.

Dr. Zimmerberg also suggested that people might better protect themselves against getting sick by remaining indoors at warmer temperatures than usual.

Environmental engineers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and researchers from Yale University show that winter’s low humidity levels also contributes to the high infection rate.

The engineers found that the viruses survived best at low humidity in dry conditions, such as those found indoors in the winter.

Humidity important factor for fighting off viruses

The Yale research team led by Akiko Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology, found that low humidity hindered the immune response of the animals in three ways.

It prevented cilia, which are hair-like structures in airways cells, from removing viral particles and mucus. It also reduced the ability of airway cells to repair damage caused by the virus in the lungs.

The third mechanism involved interferons, or signaling proteins released by virus-infected cells to alert neighbouring cells to the viral threat. In the low-humidity environment, this innate immune defense system failed.

While the researchers emphasised that humidity is not the only factor in flu outbreaks, it is an important one that should be considered during the winter season.

Increasing water vapour in the air with humidifiers is a potential strategy to reduce flu symptoms and speed recovery, they said.

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