Health

We Asked an Expert If Cold Drinks Can Really Make You Sick

In Indonesia, ice cold drinks are the reason you're coughing.
12 August 2017, 6:10am
Photos by Jerome Paz and Trey Ratcliff

Indonesians have a unique perspective on what makes you ill. It's a country where bad winds can leave you feeling like you've got the flu, malicious spirits are behind all of your sleep issues, and, oh yeah, iced drinks can make you sick.

Back when I was still a little kid, whenever I had a cough, my mother always immediately knew what to blame. "It's because you're drinking too much ice!" she would complain, and just like that, it was my fault I felt sick. Maybe if I could just avoid iced drinks, I would never get sick. Yeah, right. Good luck. We live in the tropics.

But here's the thing, this wasn't just my mom's weird quirk. The whole country thinks that too much ice, or cold drinks in general, can make you coughing sick. Don't believe me? The idea is so common that it's the punchline of a joke. Here's some proof:

What's that? You can't read Bahasa Indonesia? Don't worry, the only important part here is that both make fun of the fact that everyone—your mom, your dad, your co-workers, and your friends—thinks that iced drinks are the reason you're coughing. So is this true? And, if it is, then why doesn't everyone else believe it?

"There's no direct correlation between consuming ice, or cold drinks, and coughing, colds, or the flu," Dr. Andi Khomeini Takdir Haruni, of the Indonesian Doctors Association, told VICE. "Low body temperature doesn't cause the flu or coughing. They are caused by a lot of things, but most of the time it's a virus."

Wait, so ice doesn't make you sick? Then what does? Usually, it's other people, Andi told VICE. Most people catch a cold from a virus, which is generally passed from person-to-person whenever a sick person coughs or sneezes all over the place. The tiny mucous particles escaping your body contaminate whatever is around them, causing whoever is close by to potentially fall ill.

So temperature has nothing to do with a person's health? But then why does everyone believe that the changing seasons—when Indonesia and the rest of tropical Asia shifts from wet to dry—is the time when more people get sick?

"If you want to connect it to low temperature, then it's probably the blood vessels constricting," Andi told VICE. "When the weather gets colder, or someone drinks cold water, their respiratory tract, their mucosa can produce more liquid. But this doesn't happen to everyone."

OK, so the changing seasons makes you sick, that too isn't true? Well, it's partially true, Andi explained.

"When the weather changes, yes, there are a lot of people who get sick," he said. "But there's also a lot of us who don't. It means that someone with a strong immune system can handle and adapt to the change, while others need more help to cope with the weather's transition."

Well then, is there any reason to be concerned about the ice in my glass? Yeah, of course, Andi said. But how cold it is doesn't matter, he said. What does is where the ice came from in the first place. The tap water isn't safe to drink in Indonesia—it isn't safe in most of Asia really—and ice made from contaminated water can definitely leave you feeling ill.

"What's important is the hygiene of the water/ice being consumed," Andi said.

I called up another expert, this one a doctor who treats children, just to make sure. Maybe kids are more prone to falling ill, and therefore, more likely to feel the ill-effects of cold drinks. Nope, said Dr. Dewi Purnama.

"It's all a myth born out of the lack of a medical education," she said.

OK, wait. One last try. My mom, I thought. She's the root of this all. She must know why she was so convinced that iced drinks were going to make me sick.

"I said it so you wouldn't go so crazy with all that ice," my mom told me. "It's just something parents make up so their children will listen to them."

My whole life has been a lie.

Like this story? I have a bit of an obsession with investigating unique cultural beliefs about health. Want to read more? Check out this story where I interviewed doctors to figure out whether "masuk angin" was real and this other one investigating whether ghosts were really trying to kill me in my sleep.