The All-Too-Common Misguided Thinking on the Common Cold

“I’ve had three colds this winter. It’s hard once you have a kid. They’re around all these germs at school and they bring them home. I’ve got to do a better job washing my hands, I guess.”


Does this sound familiar? Have you had a cold recently? Do you feel victim to unavoidable germs? If so, I don’t feel sorry for you, not because I’m a jerk without any compassion, but because I have a solution for you instead.


Live a life with less chronic stress.

According to a study article published in The New England Journal of Medicine (1), one of the world’s leading medical journals:

“The rates of both respiratory infection and clinical colds increased in a dose-response manner with increases in the degree of psychological stress.”

Wow, right? There’s an association between chronic stress and incidence of the common cold. And not just any association, but a powerful dose-response relationship. As levels of chronic stress increase, incidence of the common cold increases in a direct one-to-one manner. Each pill of chronic stress you swallow makes you incrementally sicker.

Are you still questioning whether our bodies, hearts, and minds are connected?

Why is it that most people have been holding onto the belief that getting sick is bad luck, wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time stuff? Is it because this information linking chronic stress to the common cold is the result of new, cutting-edge research that’s just reaching us? That can’t be it, because the results of aforementioned study were public knowledge before the Red Sox ever won a World Series, before Al Gore invented the Internet, and before I kissed a girl—in 1991.

Many people simply don’t want to be aware of this information that’s been around for 25 years. It’s much easier to live in fear of germs and consider your self-care to be daily Purell baths than it is to live your life with the kind of conscious, deliberate care it takes to live with less chronic stress. That’s the nighttime, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, fever elephant in the room.

But wait, exposure to other sick people must be a factor, right? Not according The New England Journal of Medicine (1):

“These effects were not altered when we controlled for age, sex, education, allergic status, weight, the season, the number of subjects housed together, the infectious status of those sharing the same housing, and virus-specific antibody status at baseline (before challenge).”

Living in the same home with other sick people didn’t account for this effect; chronic stress acted alone. To avoid getting a cold, we must live with less chronic stress. Stated positively, we must love ourselves, engage in fulfilling work, engage in fulfilling relationships, and otherwise take great care of ourselves and enjoy our lives.

You can see why many people opt for Purell. You can grab a bottle at the pharmacy on the way home from work for $2.99. But is it really easier? Many of the things we need to do to live well and be well might seem like the harder option. Facing and dealing with our repressed feelings, starting a business or going back to school, and really caring for other people can be daunting. They take time, energy, and care. In a culture promising quick fixes, why bother? But inner strife, 30 or 40 years of cubicle walls you didn’t mean to sign up for, and a lifetime of things left unsaid doesn’t sound so easy to me. Plus, a life well lived reaps much greater rewards than a few less nagging colds. It’s what it means to thrive—now and well into the future. God bless you.

(1) Psychological Stress and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. The New England Journal of Medicine, 1991, 325(9), 606-612.



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