7 Surprising Ways Your Body Responds to the Common Cold
Feeling irritable, moody, and unable to concentrate when you have a cold? It’s not you being a grump—it’s your body’s neurological response and it helps you recover.
You’re in a funk
“Whenever there’s an infection in the body, your body releases proteins, called cytokines, to help the body fight the infection,” says Partha Nandi, MD, author of Ask Dr. Nandi: 5 Steps to Becoming Your Own #HealthHero for Longevity, Well-Being, and a Joyful Life (North Star Way, September 2017). “That happens whether you have the common cold or a more serious infection, like the flu.” Knowing the nine clear signs that a cold is coming on will help you spot trouble in advance.
Studies have found that your brain recognizes those cytokines as molecular signals of sickness. “We’ve all been there,” Dr. Nandi says. “You feel like, ‘Leave me alone; I don’t want to deal with anyone.’ It’s not because you are unique, it’s because of the chemicals being produced.”
“An illness does affect mood, performance, and alertness,” says psychologist Mary Alvord, PhD, adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling down, she suggests. “Understand that this is a very specific situation. Tell yourself, ‘I have a cold, and it’s right now, it’s temporary. This won’t go on for very long,’” says Alvord.
Cytokines have a positive impact on healing your body but they can leave you feeling lethargic, says Dr. Nandi. Your sleep pattern may even change. When you’re sick, make sure you’re getting as much sleep as possible so your body can fight the infection faster, Dr. Nandi suggests. Here are 13 secrets from sleep doctors that will help you sleep better. “In order for the brain to repair itself, you need sleep. Your immune response also needs sleep. When you have an infection, you need that sleep. Your brain needs even more rest than normal to repair itself. It’s more critical than when you don’t have an infection.”
“When you can’t breathe well, you can’t sleep as well,” says Alvord. “When you can’t sleep as well, we know that it affects your mood and alertness. [Sleep-deprived people] tend to be grouchier, and their frustration tolerance is lower.”
You cancel plans
Your body doesn’t want to do anything else other than tackle the virus. It’s how we survive, says Dr. Nandi: Your body is focused on fighting the infection—not in making you feel better in the moment. If you decide to ignore your bad cold and try to live life with your normal routine, the cold can have even more of a negative impact on your physical and psychological state, says Dr. Nandi.
While it’s probably a good idea to scale back on your social plans and outings when you’re sick, don’t completely isolate yourself, suggests Dr. Alvord. “Reach out for social support so you have perspective on whatever else is going on. When you’re isolated, you lose that perspective.” Keep your germs to yourself by keeping up with friends and family via social media or video calls if you live alone. Here’s how to make a cold less miserable.
People who have a good social circle and are generally in a good mood are much less likely to catch a cold even after being exposed to the virus, according to a new study in the journal Personality. “People who are more positive draw more people to them,” says Dr. Alvord. It’s good to get social support when you’re sick, she says. “Those who feel negative avoid or even drive off people, and don’t have as much social support,” she says, commenting on the research. Here’s how to make friends as an adult.
You can’t concentrate
Cytokines interfere with concentration, says Dr. Nandi, which makes these tips for improving your focus vital. “It’s a primitive response. When you are attacked with a bug, your body shuts down. It’s using every bit of energy to fight the infection.”
In a study of 200 people, published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers found that those with colds had poor alertness, a negative mood, and psychomotor slowing—their thought process was muddied and their reaction times were slower compared to healthy folks. The cold sufferers took longer to understand and learn new information, according to the study.
If you’re feeling under the weather and have a big presentation due, see if you can push the presentation date back a few days. You’ll be better able to concentrate and perform better at difficult tasks once your cold subsides.
You feel depressed
A 2015 study published in JAMA Psychiatry journal looked at brain scans and found that during a depressive episode, there is inflammation in the brain. “When you have inflammation, it can make you feel depressed,” says Dr. Nandi. And if you already are depressed, it can lead to an exacerbation or attack of depression. It can make this worse when you have a cold. Cytokines travel all over. Inflammation in the brain can lead to more depression or an attack of a depressive episode, he says.
“Many people who are depressed want to crawl into bed and sleep,” says Alvord. “But that’s the opposite of what we want depressed people to do. We want to get them more behaviorally activated. They feel more justified to sleep when depressed, that can take them out of activity and further isolate them. That’s a ripple effect,” she says.
Your Rx to feel better faster
“Nutrition is so important,” says Dr. Nandi. If you don’t eat well when you’re ill, it could slow down your healing. “You’re in an inflamed state throughout your body and adding inflammation by eating foods that have a lot of additives, preservatives, and sugar can cause further inflammation. That’s why it’s so important to eat the right way and drink the right way when you’re sick so you don’t prolong the illness, Dr. Nandi says. Learn 10 of the healthiest vegetables you can eat.
He also suggests you drink more than enough water. “You’re losing fluids while trying to fight this bug, so drink more than you normally would. All of the energy you’re using to fight this infection dehydrates you,” says Dr. Nandi.
Give yourself a break when you have a cold, suggests Dr. Alvord. Tell yourself, “I may not be getting as much sleep as I should, and I might feel down. I need to take care of myself.” Consider pampering yourself a little bit and let others do the same, she says. Check out these products for the next time you want a spa day at home.