Stress Found to Be Prime Suspect in Colds Mystery : Health: Researchers find that those under pressure are more likely than others to suffer ailment.


Go ahead, wander around with wet hair till the cows come home. Park the bed in a stiff draft. Sit around in damp socks and eat ice cream until your teeth ache.

But to avoid a cold, pass up that blow-out with the boss.

The cold war, the common cold war, is alive and well. And the latest dispatch may surprise no one but the people with Ph.D.s: Psychological stress, researchers say, is “associated . . . with an increased risk of acute respiratory illness.”

Got that? Stressed-out people get colds.

That revelation, unveiled today in The New England Journal of Medicine, supports the debatable contention that emotional states affect physical health. Specifically, the report suggests that stress can undermine one’s defenses against infectious diseases.


The researchers, including one from England’s now-defunct Common Cold Unit, have yet to pinpoint a precise mechanism by which stress might aid and abet colds. But common-cold experts said the study offers the first persuasive evidence of the link.

“It’s really awfully intriguing,” said Elliot Dick, a University of Wisconsin virologist and renowned common cold researcher. “When I read it . . . I thought, ‘Holy cow! This is really an interesting finding.’ ”

The study involved 420 men and women enrolled as subjects at the world-famous Common Cold Unit in Salisbury. They underwent medical exams, gave blood samples, and completed questionnaires about behavior, psychological stress, personality and health habits.

Then 394 of them received nose drops laced with one of five viruses known to cause a cold’s familiar symptoms. (About 200 viruses cause colds.) The other 26 subjects, a comparison group, got drops containing an innocuous saline solution.

All were then quarantined in large apartments for a week, alone or in small groups. They were checked daily for the tell-tale signs--post-nasal drip, stuffiness, runny eyes. Use of facial tissues was closely monitored. Several weeks later, they gave a second blood sample.

In the end, the researchers found that people who reported high levels of psychological stress were twice as likely to develop a cold as those reporting low stress levels. And no matter which of the five cold viruses made its way into a person’s nose, the result was the same.


Stress, by the researchers’ definition, is a complex condition that can include anger, dissatisfaction and hostility, among other emotions. But generally, people under stress felt their lives were somewhat “unpredictable, uncontrollable and overwhelming.”

“With every increase in psychological stress, there’s an increase in the likelihood of developing a cold, given exposure to the cold virus,” said Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the paper’s lead author.

The researchers attempted to take into account outside factors that might affect susceptibility--age, smoking habits, diet, exercise, sleep patterns, and so on. But they found they could not explain away the apparent link between stress and colds.

They also explored what might be going on in the subjects’ immune systems. They monitored two indicators in the blood--white-cell counts and levels of a protein called immunoglobulin. But they were unable to identify any specific changes as a result of stress.

“We have some measures of immunity in the study but they’re not very sophisticated,” Cohen said in a telephone interview. “It is hard to do the more sophisticated immune measurements that you might want to look at.”

Despite the demise of the Common Cold Unit last year, cold research is heating up, according to virologist Dick, who traces the interest to recent advances in anti-viral drugs and improved understanding of the structure and behavior of cold viruses.

Dick himself is a specialist in transmission of colds--lately by studying how colds move from one player to another around poker tables. He has concluded that colds are relatively difficult to spread and that air filters and medicated tissues offer a formidable defense.

Other researchers in recent years have exploded some of the folk wisdom about colds, particularly the old axioms about dampness. They have found that people exposed to cold viruses while in wet clothing were no more likely than others to get sick.

“My grandmother used to make me eat melted ice cream,” said Carole Heilman, who survived to become head of the respiratory diseases branch of the U.S. National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I was never allowed to eat anything cold. I never knew ice cream was cold.”

The new study stemmed in part from research in the 1980s in the field of so-called psychoneuroimmunology--the hotly debated study of the relationship between psychological factors, such as stress and depression, and the body’s immune function.

For example, researchers have found that certain infection-fighting white blood cells are less numerous in people who are bereaved or depressed. Other researchers have suggested that brain chemicals released under stress may exacerbate some ailments.

“It’s in the back of anybody’s mind: Gee whiz, why are they susceptible when they’re stressed?” mused Dick. “Or, is there a way that we can psyche ourselves into producing (some biological product) so we ourselves won’t be susceptible?”