We know a lot of people love winter. And we get it–the snow is pretty, chilly temps can sometimes be pleasantly bracing, and we all love building snow sculptures. But there are some drawbacks. It never fails, after a lot of time spent enjoying the great winter outdoors, your body reacts. You start coughing a little more often; your nose runs incessantly; and you develop some fun winter throat issues. Sometimes this turns into a full-blown cold.
So… Can weather affect your tonsils? Your tonsils are a big part of your body’s immune system–so maybe these winter symptoms can be traced back to a problem there. Because if you can bolster your tonsils (and your immune system), maybe winter would be a little more enjoyable after all!
Cold weather can impact your health
So let’s get this out of the way: cold weather doesn’t make you sick. You won’t catch a cold because you’ve been chilly–that’s not how viruses and bacteria work, necessarily. But cold weather can have an impact on your health by lowering your body’s defenses–and sometimes even wreaking a little havoc on your respiratory tract. But it’s the virus that makes you sick–not the cold itself.
One of the primary culprits here is the air. Cold temperatures usually mean very dry air. Dry air can irritate your throat (as the humidity drops, the mucus lining your throat dries out–if you get a sore throat only when it’s cold, this might be why). This dry air also reduces the amount of germ-fighting mucus present in your nose (yes, that mucus is good for something).
There are a couple other reasons why cold weather might impact your health:
- There tends to be more cloud cover in the winter months (and you tend to stay inside more often because, you know, the air is so cold it hurts your face). This means you’re likely to absorb less vitamin D from the sun. As vitamin D is critical to a properly functioning immune system, your primary defenses against germs may not be operating at their best.
- Your body temperature might drop just a wee bit. In cold temperatures, you can lose heat faster than you produce it. Over time, this can lead to hypothermia (this is a serious condition when your body temperature drops below 95 degrees fahrenheit). But even before you become hypothermic, your body may not fight off disease quite as well, because it is busy keeping itself warm.
- You’ll be indoors more often. And this means you’ll be indoors with other people–usually with little to no airflow. That means germs might have an easier time moving from person to person (and you’re a bit more likely to get sick as a result.)
How does cold weather impact your tonsils?
Your tonsils are an important part of your immune system. They’re two big clusters of lymph cells in the back of your throat. They can help filter germs out (which means you suck fewer germs right into your lungs–and that’s nice for your respiratory system). They even produce antibodies. You can think of them as the rather noble gatekeepers of your respiratory tract.
How cold weather impacts your tonsils
Cold weather does have an impact on your tonsils–even if it’s not the cold weather itself that causes you to get sick. Here’s how it works:
- If you get sick more often, your tonsils are going to be fighting infections more often.
- This means there’s a higher chance that your tonsils can become swollen and inflamed (inflammation is a common immune response).
- This can result in a sore throat that can last for two or three days (or more).
This infection of your tonsils is called tonsillitis. Tonsillitis in the winter is no fun–but if your tonsillitis doesn’t resolve on its own, long term infections can cause even more issues:
- Swollen tonsils that block your airway. This can make it difficult to breathe.
- Pockets of pus that form behind your tonsils.
- Other health complications.
Over time, this can reduce immunity throughout your entire body. Lymph cells, your tonsils included, are an important aspect of your immune system. So when your tonsils aren’t working at 100%, you may become more susceptible to certain types of infections (or recover more slowly when you do grow ill).
The symptoms of tonsillitis usually feel very close to what you’d expect from a cold or a flu. This can make identification a little tricky. (This is where a doctor can usually help!)
How to Fight Cold Weather Tonsillitis
It’s not that your tonsils are bad at their job–it’s just that they need a little help. With the right accessories, you can do just that.
Here are some strategies that might help with your winter throat issues:
- Use a humidifier in your home, especially in the winter: This will help keep the air from drying out too much. If the air is less dry, that protective mucus will be plentiful enough to assist your immune system in keeping you healthy.
- Drink tea: It’s full of good stuff for you! We don’t recommend drinking caffeinated tea after 2pm, but having some nice warm herbal tea can help bring your body temperature up and recharge all of your mucus creators.
- Take vitamin D supplements: If you haven’t seen the sun in a few days (a few months?), take some vitamin D supplements in pill form. Or invest in a sun lamp. Or a trip to Mongolia (the Gobi Desert, located in Mongolia, is one of the sunniest places in the world).
- Make sure you get outside: It may be colder outside than inside, but that sun-generated Vitamin D is essential to a properly functioning immune system. So put on your parka and go for a hike!
- Dress warmly: Don’t let your body temperature stay too cool for too long. Over time, this makes it hard for your immune system to fight off infections, viruses, and bacteria. So, maybe put on a sweater or sit next to the fireplace or something!
- Gargle with saltwater: For many reasons that have to do with the physics of liquids and such, gargling with salt water can help you soothe your sore throat and get rid of some of the surface level germs surrounding your tonsils. It’s a win-win!
If You Can’t Keep Your Tonsils Healthy, You May Need to Remove Them
How long does a sore throat from cold air last? Normally, as long as you’re in the cold, dry air. Moving to warmer, more humid air should make the sore throat quickly go away. Unless there’s an infection–like tonsillitis.
Usually, tonsillitis will subside on its own within a few days. But occasionally, this type of infection can become chronic–or repeat often. In these cases, a tonsillectomy may be necessary. While it isn’t quite as universal as it used to be (we understand much more about tonsils now), tonsillectomy is still sometimes the best way to provide relief for patients.
Your ENT will be able to help you decide whether a tonsillectomy is right for you–or whether there are other viable treatments to try first.