The common cold reduces most people to a sniffling, sneezing mess. With a box of tissues and cold medication as meager defenses, our only hope is that the virus will move on quickly.
While everyone suffers through a range of familiar symptoms, including a cough, sore throat and body aches, it turns out that people’s emotional lives may significantly affect how awful those symptoms feel.
A study published Thursday in Health Psychology found that people who considered themselves lonely reported worse symptoms after researchers infected them with a cold virus, compared to individuals who were less lonely.
The researchers aren’t sure exactly how loneliness worsens cold symptoms. Lead author Angie LeRoy, a doctoral student at the University of Houston and researcher at Rice University, suspects people who are lonely have a more profound inflammatory response to the virus. In other words, the toll of loneliness might influence the severity of people’s symptoms.
That wouldn’t be unusual, according to previous research. Studies have shown, for example, a link between loneliness and increased likelihood for developing coronary heart disease as well as higher odds of dying prematurely.
To understand what happens to lonely people when they catch a cold, LeRoy and her co-authors, working in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University’s Common Cold Project, recruited 213 healthy people and exposed them to the same cold strain.
This may sound like a terrible deal, but the participants earned $1,060 for volunteering and were quarantined for five days at a hotel where they received meal service. They were told not to interact with each other or with people outside of the hotel. Beforehand, they answered questions to measure their loneliness.
“It’s not just about getting enough rest. We do want to think about mental health as well.”
LeRoy focused only on the 159 people who actually became sick and found that those who reported more acute loneliness also said they had worse symptoms that included a runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, congestion, and chills. Those people, however, weren’t more likely to get infected.
The researchers also ruled out the possibility that social isolation, or the quantity of one’s relationships, might be responsible for more severe symptoms. Additionally, they controlled for other factors like age, gender, income and education. Instead, it appeared that people’s perception of their own loneliness predicted how they experienced a cold.
LeRoy hopes the findings help people shift their understanding of how a cold might affect them. “It’s not just about getting enough rest,” she says. “We do want to think about mental health as well.” Making connections and maintaining those relationships is important, but that support may play an even more important role when we’re sick.
She also wants the study to illustrate the “mind-body connection” for doctors, who may be solely focused on diagnosing and treating their patients’ physical ailments. Even a simple acknowledgement of their emotional well-being, LeRoy says, could potentially help a patient.
So the next time you come down with a nasty virus, don’t just reach for the tissues — try reaching out to someone who might make you feel a little less lonely. (Just be careful not to expose them to your illness.)