Why stress makes colds more likely
April 2nd, 2012
03:07 PM ET

Why stress makes colds more likely

Most of us know from experience that stress weakens our immune system. Colds always seem to strike when we're overworked or emotionally exhausted, as do eczema flare-ups, headaches and a myriad of other health problems.

Doctors long ago confirmed that the connection between stress and health is real, but they haven't been able to fully explain it. Now, in a new study, researchers say they've identified a specific biological process linking life stressors - such as money trouble or divorce - to an illness.

In this case it's the common cold.

Most research in this area has focused on cortisol, the so-called stress hormone released by the adrenal glands when we feel threatened or anxious. One of cortisol's jobs is to temporarily dampen the immune system, specifically the inflammatory response, in order to free up energy to deal with threats.

The fact that cortisol suppresses inflammation presents a puzzle: People who are chronically stressed tend to have higher levels of cortisol, yet the sneezing, sniffling and coughing of the average cold are actually caused by the inflammatory response to a virus, not the virus itself.

Shouldn't stress therefore prevent cold symptoms?

Health.com: How to stop a cold in its tracks

The authors of the new study have an answer: The key factor that influences a person's vulnerability to illness appears to be the immune system's sensitivity to cortisol, not his or her cortisol levels per se. And chronic stress, the study suggests, may weaken the body's responsiveness to the hormone, allowing the inflammation that causes cold symptoms to run wild.

"Stressed people's immune cells become less sensitive to cortisol," says lead author Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. "They're unable to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore, when they're exposed to a virus, they're more likely to develop a cold."

Cohen and his colleagues tested their theory in a pair of experiments, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the first, they interviewed 276 healthy men and women about the sources of psychological stress in their lives over the previous year, including unhappy work situations, long-term conflicts with family or friends, or legal or financial woes. And then they tried to get them sick.

Health.com: Job killing you? 8 types of work-related stress

The researchers gave each study participant nasal drops containing a rhinovirus (a common cold-causing virus) and quarantined them for five days, during which 39% of the volunteers came down with a cold. Those who were stressed-out had double the risk of falling ill, even after age, body mass index and a host of other factors were taken into account.

When the researchers went back and looked at blood tests taken a week or two earlier, they found no link between blood cortisol levels and the likelihood of getting sick. However, they did find that the typical relationship between cortisol and inflammation - as one rises, the other tends to fall - seemed to be disrupted in people who were stressed-out and in those who developed colds.

In these groups, cortisol levels had no bearing on inflammation (as measured by the levels of certain white blood cells), suggesting that "stressed people were... resistant" to cortisol and "non-stressed people were not," Cohen says.

A second, smaller experiment that used a different measure of inflammation confirmed the link between cortisol resistance and higher levels of inflammation.

Health.com: 7 steps to instant calm

Although a cure for the common cold is still a long ways off, the findings do raise the possibility that there may be "ways of intervening when a person is chronically stressed, possibly pharmacologically, to influence this kind of process," Cohen says.

An intervention of that sort wouldn't only be useful during cold-and-flu season, since a wide range of health problems have been linked to stress and inflammation, including heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

The study "implies that other diseases where the control of inflammation is important would be influenced in the same way—that we could find the same sort of mechanisms operating in those cases," Cohen says.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

Post by:
Filed under: Cold and flu • Health.com • Stress

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. c s

    The source of the stress does not matter. Perhaps this is why people who get chilled during winter also become sick.

    April 2, 2012 at 17:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Bob

    This should be no surprise to the researchers. Cells have cortisol receptors on them. The number of receptors drops when cortisol is chronically elevated – this is a protective measure. We see the same thing in the brain – if neurotransmitter levels are chronically elevated the number of receptors for that neurotransmitter decreases.

    April 2, 2012 at 18:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. medschoolkid

    This was a pointless study. I'm with Bob, researchers have known this for decades. I'm troubled that a study like this gets approved to be published when there are many much more groundbreaking and just as legitimate studies that were probably turned down.

    April 2, 2012 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Andrew

      MY GOD. Is this what FOXNews, talk radio, and conservative blogs do to people? This was a necessary study. And while the results may not have been 100% surprising based on theory and related findings, there appears to have been little, if any, research confirming this specific finding prior. Scientists don't go by the motto, "if it feels true it must be so there's no sense in studying it." And by the way, Bob did not say the research wasn't necessary.

      April 2, 2012 at 19:39 | Report abuse |
  4. Kevin

    I haven't had a cold or flu since 1997. I have had symptoms but when I get them I drink my tea with one aspirin and they are gone in a day.

    There are hundreds of FDA approved drugs created from plants found in the rain forest.

    When I visited Ecuador in 1997 I had a cold. The cook in the hostel gave me some tea and one 600mg aspirin and it was gone overnight and I was amazed!

    If I told you what I drank, you would jump up and down and scream that its wasn't FDA approved so it isn't any good. So I won't tell you.

    Seven years ago I was told that I had less than 1 year to live. I decided to go back to Ecuador and vacation. While vacationing with my friends I told them my condition. They gave me two names of plants and they told me how to prepare it. My blood tests, ultrasounds and cts do not indicate the cysts or the cancer cells anymore.

    Do your own research about rain forest plants.

    I didn't wait for the FDA.

    April 2, 2012 at 20:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • David

      Please tells us what you took for the cold and the cysts/cancer. Thanks!

      April 3, 2012 at 08:13 | Report abuse |
  5. encinomomcom

    Top of my list is a Good Night's Sleep. If you are able to do that regularly, you'll be OK!

    April 3, 2012 at 00:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Home Loans for Those with Bad Credit

    Wow, superb blog structure! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The entire glance of your website is magnificent, let alone the content material!

    April 3, 2012 at 01:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. katie

    Don't for get about genetics... Genetics plays a big part in immune response. There are those with good immune systems and those without.

    April 3, 2012 at 07:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. aystin

    ass wipe

    April 3, 2012 at 09:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. aystin

    katie blow me

    April 3, 2012 at 09:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. salih

    It is reasonable that stress would inevitably effects negatively on human immune system. Actually, stress can effect negatively almost every part of human body. Brain, sexual health, pyhsical strength and so on. People generally encounter to difficulty of concentration on something. People can beat stress by the pyhsical activities. For example, walking and swimming is the best spor that every person do it easily without spending lots of effort. In conclusion, people always need to be optimistic in order to defeat stress wih natural and effective way. Emotional health is the nuts and bolts when it comes to defeat stress. Human body is perfectly adapt itself against any stressful sitiautions. For example, for females, their ovulation period supressed themselves in order to protect eggs against any invaders, we call it surviving mode. Or we can give example about human fat, in starvation, human body deposit the fat in order to live much longer. In conlusion, human body can perfectly prepare itself to danger of facing any stressful situations but inevitably this regulations sometimes have negative effects on human health. This self defence method of human body trying to adapt itself against any threat while this repercussion's effecting negatively on human's body.

    April 3, 2012 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Max Brooks

    Yet ANOTHER reason to legalize marijuana.

    April 3, 2012 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kyla Kieltyka

      And done!

      October 25, 2018 at 15:36 | Report abuse |
  12. Norma Tyler

    Stress will do it to you

    April 5, 2012 at 04:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. panic attacks treatment,treatment for anxiety,panic disorder treatment,social anxiety treatment,treatment for panic

    Eliminating your anxiety with The Linden Method will Allow your phobias and obsessions to fade away.|Eliminating your anxiety with The Linden Method will Completely eliminate the symptoms that plague you each day.|Eliminating your anxiety with The Linden Method will Stop anxiety preventing you doing things you want to do.|Eliminating your anxiety with The Linden Method will Stop you from obsessing about your health.|Eliminating your anxiety with The Linden Method will Allow you to move forward with life and face exciting challenges.|Eliminating your anxiety with The Linden Method will Massively increase your confidence and successes in all that you do.}

    April 6, 2012 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. cubital tunnel syndrome

    Pretty component to content. I simply stumbled upon your blog and in accession capital to claim that I acquire actually enjoyed account your weblog posts. Anyway I will be subscribing on your augment or even I achievement you get admission to constantly fast.

    May 5, 2012 at 14:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Julie

    Every time I get stressed I get a hacking cough (with all the mucus) that comes with it. Flu like symptoms, headaches, earache, sore throat the whole lot. Like it at the moment. The cough can stay with me a couple of months. There doesn't seem to be anything I can take that alleviates it.

    August 28, 2017 at 04:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Johnie Hosack

    Thanks for sharing wonderful informations. Your site is so awesome. I am impressed by the information that you have on this website. This reveals how properly you perceive this specific subject. I Saved as a favorite this page and will come back for much more articles. I discovered simply the info I already searched everywhere and just could not come across. What a very good site.


    September 10, 2017 at 20:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. victorialoanfinancier

    TAKE A LOAN @ 2% INTEREST RATE with victoriafinancier@outlook.com

    Do you need a loan?
    Do you need a loan to pay off your debt?
    Do you have bad credit?
    Do you need a loan construction or to invest?
    Do u you need loan to start doing business?
    if yes,
    are Granting you personal loan, Business loan, mortgage loan,
    Construction loan, Debt loan, Student loan, Auto loan, e.t.c.
    Loan at any currency are range from $5,000 "min" to $100,000.000 "max" @ 2% interest rate
    If you are interested kindly send
    response to: { victoriafinancier@outlook.com }

    VICTORIA FINANCIER EMAIL: victoriafinancier@outlook.com
    Best Regard

    November 15, 2017 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. dev723

    Dengue fever is an infection with flu-like symptoms transmitted by mosquitoes. Sometimes can be deadly, but early treatment can help reduce the risk. For Dengue Turmeric Remedy Help to reduce the risk. You can Drink Everyday 1 Glass Turmeric Milk.
    Ravya drinks has bought a tremendously loving element in the form of Haldi milk & its also known as Haldi Doodh . If you are suffering from cold, flu, fever or any other kind of skin infection, this is truly going to act in the best possible manner. Ravya and its products are always appreciable not just for flavor but also for quality. This is an amazing product being designed to make you feel the benefits of milk and haldi together without any confusion to its consumption.

    November 21, 2017 at 23:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. commander vrai cialis

    Selon que vous etes puissant ou miserable, vous etes juge innocent ou coupable. https://www.cialis20.fr

    December 6, 2019 at 05:16 | Report abuse | Reply

Leave a Reply to Bob


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.