Stokkete/ShutterstockYou’re coughing, sneezing, and maybe running a fever. All you want to do is to crawl under the duvet. Having a cold is miserable enough, but a new study published in Health Psychology shows that if you’re feeling lonely, you could feel even worse.
Experts have known for years that loneliness is bad for our health. If you’re lonely, you’ve a 26 percent greater chance of dying younger and a 64 percent increased likelihood of suffering cognitive decline. Loneliness can lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, and strokes. It can also cause depression, which is now the primary cause of illness and disability, affecting 300 million people worldwide and costing the economy $1 trillion annually. (Here are 50 ways to stop being lonely.)
But not much research has been done into whether loneliness affects how we perceive illness—whether we feel worse because we feel lonely. So researchers resolved to find out.
First they recruited over 200 volunteers and assessed their level of loneliness using a standardized questionnaire. Then they infected them with the cold virus (by giving them bug-ridden nose drops, if you must know!), and placed them in quarantine. Over the next five days, the volunteers were asked to report on the severity of their symptoms, and they were also given medical tests so that scientists could judge accurately how bad their symptoms really were.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, of the 160 who developed a cold, there was a sliding scale of results. The volunteers who were loneliest reported the worst symptoms, even if the medical evidence didn’t back it up. The research team was careful to eliminate any other factors that could influence the results, so it was clear that patients who felt lonely were more likely to feel worse when they got sick.
But the team was keen to emphasize that their research was focused on individual perception of loneliness rather than on external factors such as how many friends participants had overall. Graduate student Angie LeRoy explained the difference to Science Daily: “You can be in a crowded room and feel lonely. That perception is what seems to be important when it comes to these cold symptoms.
This knowledge could be an important tool for doctors who are treating patients for a range of conditions. If doctors know that loneliness can exacerbate symptoms, they can ensure that they provide proper treatment and high quality care, which may include tackling the patient’s mental health as well as their physical symptoms.
“Doctors should take psychological factors into account at intake on a regular basis,” lead researcher Professor Chris Fagundes told Science Daily. “It would definitely help them understand the phenomenon when the person comes in sick.”
Of course, everyone gets colds from time to time–it’s not called the “common cold” for nothing. Heading it off before it strikes, or treating yourself with simple home remedies, goes a long way towards making you feel better. But perhaps the most effective treatment is to build strong friendships and prevent loneliness. At least then you won’t feel worse than necessary if you do get sick.