Carnegie Mellon Study Links Chronic Stress To The Common Cold From Family, Work

February 10, 1997

PITTSBURGH--Chronic stress, particularly stress brought on by enduring family strain or workplace pressures, makes us more susceptible to the common cold, according to a new study by Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Sheldon Cohen.

In a landmark New England Journal of Medicine article in 1991, Cohen provided evidence that stress was associated with increased risk of developing a cold.

In a new study that further defines the kinds of stress that reduce a body's ability to fight off infections, researchers took 276 healthy men and women between 18 to 55 years old and -- after assessing the stress in their lives, stress hormones and health practices such as smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, exercise, sleep -- exposed them to a virus that causes a common cold. Subjects were then monitored in quarantine for five days for the development of a cold. As in Cohen's previous studies, 40 percent became sick.

"Our interest is in whether the psychological and other measures we gather before exposing them to a virus predicts who is more susceptible -- in other words, who develops the illness," Cohen said. "In our earlier work, we found that questionnaires measuring how stressed people feel predicted who became ill. The greater the self-reported stress, the more the likelihood that they would develop a cold."

In this recent study, researchers replaced the stress questionnaires with an intensive stress interview, which allowed them to distinguish between acute (less than a month) and chronic (more than a month) stressors, and to assess the types of stressors that made people less resistant to infections like the common cold.

Cohen and his team found no increased susceptibility to colds in people who experienced episodes of stress lasting less than a month. But, he said that those who suffered long-term personal problems persisting for more than a month were 2.5 times as likely to become ill after exposure to the cold virus as people who weren't under a similar degree of stress.

"We found that chronic but not acute stressors placed people at risk for developing colds," Cohen said. "We also found that chronic stressors such as enduring social conflicts with family or friends and enduring problems at work, were responsible for more people catching colds."

He added that researchers are still unable to determine exactly how chronic stress makes people less resistant to infections like the common cold. Although several of the health practices--smoking, loss of sleep--and hormone measures also predicted susceptibility to illness, none could account for why stress was associated with a greater risk for illness. Cohen said that measuring many aspects of the immune system that could establish the link would require research subjects to submit to multiple blood tests and would be hard to measure because of the invasive nature of the tests.

However, identifying the conditions that can lead to colds might contribute to more prevention, researchers said. "And, telling people to reduce stress is never a bad thing," added Cohen.

Research contributors on this project include Professor of Pathology Dr. Bruce Rabin, Professor of Otolaryngology Dr. William Doyle, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology Dr. David Skoner and Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Ellen Frank, all from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Dr. Jack Gwaltney, professor of medicine at the University of Virginia Medical School.

Carnegie Mellon University

Related Stress Articles from Brightsurf:

Stress-free gel
Researchers at The University of Tokyo studied a new mechanism of gelation using colloidal particles.

Early life stress is associated with youth-onset depression for some types of stress but not others
Examining the association between eight different types of early life stress (ELS) and youth-onset depression, a study in JAACAP, published by Elsevier, reports that individuals exposed to ELS were more likely to develop a major depressive disorder (MDD) in childhood or adolescence than individuals who had not been exposed to ELS.

Red light for stress
Researchers from the Institute of Industrial Science at The University of Tokyo have created a biphasic luminescent material that changes color when exposed to mechanical stress.

How do our cells respond to stress?
Molecular biologists reverse-engineer a complex cellular structure that is associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS

How stress remodels the brain
Stress restructures the brain by halting the production of crucial ion channel proteins, according to research in mice recently published in JNeurosci.

Why stress doesn't always cause depression
Rats susceptible to anhedonia, a core symptom of depression, possess more serotonin neurons after being exposed to chronic stress, but the effect can be reversed through amygdala activation, according to new research in JNeurosci.

How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.

Stress in the powerhouse of the cell
University of Freiburg researchers discover a new principle -- how cells protect themselves from mitochondrial defects.

Measuring stress around cells
Tissues and organs in the human body are shaped through forces generated by cells, that push and pull, to ''sculpt'' biological structures.

Cellular stress at the movies
For the first time, biological imaging experts have used a custom fluorescence microscope and a novel antibody tagging tool to watch living cells undergoing stress.

Read More: Stress News and Stress Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to