February 23, 1997 in Features

Research Suggests Stress May Double Risk Of Colds

Anthony Ramirez New York Times
 

Winter can give you a cold because it forces you indoors with coughers, sneezers and wheezers. Toddlers can give you a cold because they are the original Germs “R” Us.

But can going postal with the boss or fretting about marriage give a person a post-nasal drip?

Yes, say a growing number of researchers.

Sheldon Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said his most recent studies suggest that stress doubles a person’s risk of getting a cold.

What’s worst is going through a month or more of “interpersonal problems” and “enduring social conflict” with colleagues, family or friends. People who had more, positive social relationships appeared less likely to get sick.

Cohen recalls “Guys and Dolls,” in which Adelaide, waiting 14 years for Nathan Detroit to marry her, peruses a psychology textbook for the reasons behind her endless sniffles.

“In other words, just from waiting around for that plain little band of gold/A person can develop a cold,” Adelaide laments.

In addition to engagement limbo, Cohen includes chronic factors like a fear of flunking out of college, repeated racial harassment, living in a high-crime neighborhood and the terminal illness of a spouse. And they can also encompass less dramatic pressures, like caring for an elderly parent or a growing chill in a marriage.

“The key is that it’s chronic, that it lasts for more than a month,” said Cohen.

Arthur A. Stone, a psychiatry and psychology professor at the State University of New York medical school at Stony Brook, says acute stress lasting maybe only a few minutes can lead to colds. The important thing, said Stone, is that several little stresses accumulate to produce a big, cold-inducing whammy.

“It could be as minor as doing unpleasant housework or having bad weather get to you,” he said. “It’s the hassles of everyday life that pile up.”

Both researchers are investigating a central mystery in cold research: Many are infected, but relatively few are chosen for the cold. On average, up to 90 percent of people exposed to a cold virus become infected, meaning the virus multiplies in the body, but only 40 percent actually become sick.

Such mysteries make curing the common cold difficult. The flu is caused by a smaller family of viruses, which led to the development of an effective vaccine.

The cold, an annoyance in comparison to the severity of influenza, is caused by more than 200 viruses. The chance of a vaccine is virtually nil.

“There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all vaccine,” said Dr. Jack M. Gwaltney, head of the epidemiology and virology division at the University of Virginia and a leading cold researcher.

Identifying the conditions that lead to colds might be a better method of prevention, researchers say. It may be that stressed-out people seek solace from co-workers, friends and family, thereby widening their exposure to cold viruses.

Or stressed people may withdraw from others, sleeping less, letting the exercise regimen slip or tippling too many martinis, thus weakening the immune system.

The most likely reason, according to Cohen and Stone, is that stress directly weakens the immune system.

In a study that Cohen plans to publish next year, his researchers gave nasal drops with cold viruses to 276 healthy Pittsburgh adults, 18 to 55 years old. They were then quarantined for five days to see who developed a cold.

And, as in other studies, 40 percent became sick.

In a 1991 study in England, Cohen and his collaborators studied 394 healthy adults who filled out questionnaires that rated stress in their lives.

In the Pittsburgh study, Cohen and his collaborators asked the subjects what exactly was irritating them, and out came the familiar angst of everyday life.

Stone thinks the accumulation of stress tips the infected person over into illness.


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