Stress: the Secret Culprit Behind the Common Cold

Stress: the Secret Culprit Behind the Common ColdForget covering your mouth when you sneeze or opening bathroom doors with a paper towel. The Pittsburgh Cold Study, directed by Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, shows that psychological stressors place adults at an increased risk for catching a cold.

In the words of the scientists themselves: “Psychological stress is associated with increased risk for developing respiratory illness for persons intentionally exposed to a common cold virus, [and] the longer the duration of the stressor the greater the risk.”

What the study found about stress and colds

People with long-term stress factors—those lasting more than one month—were 2.2 times more likely to catch a cold than were people who experienced short-term periods of stress.

If you’re catching the sniffles more than you’d like, check out the most common sources of stress for adults (below), and see if you can pinpoint and fix the worst stressors in your life.

Work Pressures

Work-related stresses that lasted longer than a month, such as unemployment, underemployment, tension in the workplace, or simply job-related pressure, made the subjects in the study four times more likely to catch the common cold than those with tension-free work situations.

Perhaps it’s time to confront your passive-aggressive boss about that long-promised raise?

Social Stress

Social stress might seem like it’s all in your head, but it can actually weaken the immune system, making you increasingly susceptible to catching a cold.

Bullying, interaction with aggressive individuals, or frightening social situations (like public speaking) can all cause social stress. This factor is also common among teenagers, adolescents and children, who often encounter stressful scenarios at school. Cut that negative frenemy out of your life for good.

Fear and Anxiety

Fear is actually a cause of stress—or, if you want, you can view stress as a mild form of fear. Regardless of the context, chronic fear or anxiety can wear on the body as much as it does on the mind, making healthy adults more susceptible to colds and other infections.

Insider tip: don’t let your children watch The Ring. Just don’t.

Health Concerns

A chronic, long-term illness is definitely a form of physical as well as psychological stress. Even if the illness isn’t yours, having a friend or family member with a chronic disease can wear on you mentally.

Even the mere threat of illness—say, a mole that is potentially cancerous—contributes to overall stress, whether the illness manifests or not.


It happens to everyone, but some adults take it harder than others. An intense dislike of aging, a reluctance to let go of your youth, fear of death, or even a hatred of the signs of aging like wrinkles or menopause, can be a huge stress factor in what is otherwise a seemingly normal life.

The scientists didn’t study the effect of dancing around in your living room to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” but we’re willing to bet that it helps.

Lowering the number of psychological stressors in your life will make you less susceptible to colds, boost your immune system, and give you a generally improved outlook on life. Music therapy, conscious positive thinking, meditation, yoga and exercise are all great ways of alleviating stress.

Or, just go out for drinks with someone you really like. A study from Volume 64 of the “Journal of Psychosomatic Research” has shown that attachment and social support among adults reduces psychological stress.

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