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The psychology of the common cold

Publish date: 07/03/2014

Tags: Cold , Stress , Smoking

the-psychology-of-the-common-coldThe psychology of the common cold

Have you ever thought that as soon as you take a break from work you automatically get a cold

Or that you seem to suffer far more from colds that others have shrugged off as a mere sniffle? 

Well, you may have a point. 

There is evidence to show that people really are affected differently by colds ‒ and much depends on our attitude. 


Chill out

If you’re naturally carefree and optimistic, all the better.

Research suggests any form of stress can lower our defences to infection. Stress can mess with our immune system. 

A prestigious researcher at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Dr Sheldon Cohen, has been studying this phenomenon for decades.

His experiments in willing volunteers revealed people who are mentally stressed out are more likely to catch a cold and also less equipped to deal with the infection if they fall sick.

Specifically, he found stress changes how well we fight infections.

When we are stressed, our immune cells – the body’s ‘army’ against infection – don’t work how they ideally should. They become insensitive to the regulatory effects of the stress hormone cortisol. This means things can get out of control.

Runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases, including infections like the common cold, so perhaps cutting stress could help.

Dr Cohen says friendship may also be a buffer against the common cold. 

Call on buddies

When he exposed volunteers to cold viruses in his lab he found those who had less regular social contact were four times more likely to catch a cold than those with lots of friendships. 

Whether this is down to viral exposure – people with lots of mates will encounter more infections and build up resistance – or the positive power of friendship is less clear.

Research published in the Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine found that being a parent boosts resilience to a cold, presumably because kids are always bringing coughs and sneezes back home with them. 

And evidence printed in Family Medicine says if you’ve already come down with a cold, a bit of TLC from those around you can make you feel much better. 

There’s also reason to believe that our own personality plays a role.

Man up

We can go through a range of emotions when we have a cold. At the start of the infection, when lethargy sets in, it can even be a welcome experience – a good excuse to lie in bed or veg on the sofa. 

But when a head cold gets into full swing and our nose is blocked and our throat is sore, it can be a real inconvenience, making us miserable and pitiful.

GP Dr Emma-Jane Down says although we may not be able to shake a cold with the power of positive thinking, having the right attitude is important. 

‘A cold can make you feel fed up, but it shouldn’t be a reason to stay off work and do nothing. 

‘You may not feel like socialising – and, anyway, it’s best to avoid that to prevent passing your cold on.’

Rather than mope, Dr Down says we should change down a gear until we start to feel better. 

‘The cold virus usually takes between two and seven days to go away, and you just have to sit it out. Thankfully, a cold is not serious. And it’s no reason to visit a doctor.’

She says don’t be tempted to exercise whilst you’re suffering from a cold – it won’t get rid of it any quicker. Instead, just rest until you have recovered. 

It is normal to catch at least two colds a year or more if you are unlucky, so it’s best to just accept it. ‘I don’t think it’s possible to use your mental attitude to beat a cold

‘But it will go on its own without treatment. You don’t need to waste money on expensive cold remedies, because they don’t work.’

Here are some practical tips from Dr Emma-Jane Down.

Top tips

  • Try to change any negative thoughts into positive ones and look on the bright side ‒ you might feel really rough but a cold won’t kill you.
  • Use having a cold as an opportunity to take some time to rest and spoil yourself – take a hot bath and relax
  • Do something you love and it will help take your mind off your cold ‒ watch a movie, read a book and put your feet up
  • Keep reminding yourself that in a couple of days your cold will be gone
  • If you smoke, a cold will make you feel much worse. Use this as the catalyst and opportunity to give up. Similarly, if your diet is poor and your lifestyle unhealthy, this could be the wake-up call to make a positive change. You might even help prevent the next cold! 

For more information on colds read our useful factsheet. Or if you’re set on changing your mindset read our feature ‘Chase your blues away with positive thinking’ or ‘Power of friendship’ for a few tips. 



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