Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Stress and the Common Cold
People who face chronic stress may be more likely to catch a cold.
Although research has clearly shown that higher levels of stress are associated with increased susceptibility to illness, exactly what type of stress is responsible for this link is not known.  For instance, acute stressful events only occur once or only have a short-term effect on the individual, such as when a person has a fight with his or her friend.  Chronic stressful events, however, can occur repeatedly or can affect the individual over a long period of time, such as when a person is unemployed for months.  To find out how these two different types of stressful events affect a person's susceptibility to illness, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine conducted a study. 
What was the research about?
Two hundred seventy six paid volunteers (125 men and 151 women) took part in the study.  The participants first completed a series of questionnaires that assessed their social networks, exercise routine, smoking level, age, education, race, gender, weight and height.  All of these variables were measured at the beginning so that the experimenters could statistically account for and control any influence these variables might have on the results of the experiment.  One month later the participants underwent an extensive interview to assess how many acute and/or chronic stressful events they were experiencing.  Afterwards the participants were all quarantined for 24 hours and then given nasal drops that contained a cold virus.  After being exposed to the cold virus the participants were quarantined for another 5 days.  During these 5 days the experimenters repeatedly tested the participant's blood and mucus to determine which participants developed a cold.
The results showed that participants experiencing chronic stressful events were more likely to develop a cold than those who were not experiencing any chronic stressful events.  Participants who had experienced acute stressful events, however, were not more likely to develop a cold.  The researchers also analyzed which specific types of chronic stressful events were associated with developing a cold.  They found that participants who were experiencing interpersonal stressors (e.g., ongoing problems with spouse) or stressors at work (e.g., underemployment or unemployment) were more likely to develop a cold; however, participants experiencing other types of chronic stressors were not more likely to develop a cold.
Why should it matter to me?
Although a chronic stressful event may not always seem to be as bad as an acute stressor, chronic stress appears to compromise a person's ability to resist illness.  If you are currently facing chronic stress this study demonstrates another reason it is important for you to try and deal with your stressor rather than simply putting up with it or avoiding it.

Source: Cohen, Sheldon, Frank, Ellen, Doyle, William J., Skoner, David P., Rabin, Bruce S., & Gwaltney, Jack M. Jr. (1998). Types of stressors that increase susceptibility to the common cold in healthy adults. Health Psychology, 17, 214-223.