BODY WATCH : Is All This Rain Making You Sick?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Staying physically and mentally healthy in the rain starts with knowing how. Here, experts separate fact from fiction.

Question: Does rainy, cold weather itself increase the risk of sickness?

Answer: It might, says Dr. William Kaloostian, assistant chief of medical urgent care at Kaiser Permanente, Los Angeles. "If someone is out in cold rainy weather, they can be more prone to sinusitis and other ailments," he says. One possible reason: "The cilia in our nose and upper respiratory tract that clear the mucus may work more slowly in cold weather." That, in turn, could allow bugs to gain a foothold.

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Q: If you're stuck in close quarters--say, a very crowded Metrolink or an overflowing bus--with wet clothes on, are you just begging for a cold?

A: Yes, but not for the reasons you might suspect. "Wet clothes have nothing to do with colds transmission," says Dr. James Cherry, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UCLA Medical Center.

So much for Mom's warning to get out of those wet clothes before catching your death. Seems what she really should have warned you about were crowds, which often are fertile cold-catching grounds.

"The closer the quarters, the more exposure to viruses, and the more likely you are to catch cold or flu," Kaloostian says.

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Q: If you can't avoid that train or bus, how can you reduce the risk of disembarking with a bug?

A: Experts offer different suggestions, depending on their research findings.

Wash your hands often and keep hands away from your nose and eyes, advises Dr. Owen Hendley, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, who has studied transmission of rhinoviruses, which cause about one-third of adult colds. He says they are spread hand to nose and hand to eyes.

But another colds researcher, Elliot Dick, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says it's important to avoid people who are coughing and sneezing. "About the only way cold viruses are transmitted is through the air," he says.

To avoid flu viruses, the keep-your-distance approach is recommended by Kaloostian, since the viruses are transmitted via the air.

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Q: Does rainy weather make children more prone to ear infections?

A: Not directly, says UCLA's Cherry, but "often a cold will lead to an ear infection."

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Q: How can you feel better physically in miserable weather?

A: "Do indoor exercise," says Michael Stevenson, a psychologist and clinical director of the North Valley Sleep Disorders Center in Mission Hills. "Reach out, talk to someone. Stay involved in social activities."

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Q: Does the rain make you sleepier?

A: Not the rain itself, Stevenson says, but rather the effects of the bad weather. "When you get less light, you tend to sleep more," he says. "Sleeping more can make you tired."

Lack of sunlight over a long period is associated with seasonal affective disorder, a condition prevalent in rainy climates in which people become depressed, have an increased appetite for carbohydrates, gain weight and become anxious.

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Q: Why do some Southern Californians get crabby when the rain lingers?

A: Lack of sunlight is one reason. "The transmitters in the brain that protect you from depression are tied to sunlight and hours of daylight," says Dr. Mark Goulston, a Santa Monica psychiatrist.

Rain-related house or car problems can compound the angst. "When the roof leaks," Goulston says, "there's a feeling of being violated, as if nature has been a burglar." There's also an "enforced closeness" at home. "And that can make you stir-crazy," Goulston adds.

"In California, we are just not used to staying indoors," Stevenson says. "We come to resent being cooped up."

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Q: What's the deal with rain-related anxiety?

A: The stress that springs from weather-related problems can affect not only the immune system, making you more prone to illness, but can also affect mood.

"We're worried about flooding, making it to work on time, getting the kids to school," Kaloostian says. Slow down, he tells patients. Eat right. Get enough sleep.

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Q: Of course, there are those rare birds who love the rain. What's their story?

A: "Some just like the change in seasons," Goulston guesses. Some depressed people, he says, "feel somewhat better in the rain because they now feel more in sync with the rest of the people who are feeling down with the rain. The gap is narrowed."

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