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The Psychology of the Common Cold

I have been sniffling for seven days now. SEVEN. DAYS. *Caps indicate extreme frustration*

Not only do I feel like crap (I just don’t have an academic word to describe this), but my colleagues and students are certainly turned off. I don’t have enough energy for my dance classes I do for fun, and my diet has consisted of soup and hot toddy’s (seriously clears the sinuses, ask and I’ll give you the recipe). My point is: the common cold affects every aspect of our lives when we get it.

A Quick Biology Lesson

What we know is that the common cold is a virus in our upper respiratory functions and sinuses. Symptoms are what anyone would describe: stuffy and runny nose, sore throat, mucus build-up, headache, fatigue, cough, sneezes, fever, etc. There are many different types of cold viruses that can be passed in various ways, and because of this, we cannot cure a cold, we can only mange its symptoms. Cold remedies do not remedy the cold; rather, they treat its symptoms. Best to just try to stay healthy, but sometimes we just can’t help it!

The Psychology

How does psychology relate to a biological problem? Well, if you’ve been following along with the blog, you already know psychology, the study of the human mind and behaviors, is very closely related to biology, the study of the living organisms. Our psychology effects our biology and vice versa.

Here’s a great example: Stress, a psychological concept, makes us more susceptible to the common cold. Objective research, again and again, shows that stress causes inflammation which causes susceptibility to illnesses, not just a cold!

This has been shown to be true with both prolonged stress (think: poverty or unemployment), and short term stress (think: moving to a new home or taking a hard class in school). Not only that, but also within all ages, ethnicities, races, genders, education levels, and BMIs (body mass index).

Here are some other interesting psychological concepts related to the common cold:

  • The more social you are, the less likely you are to get the common cold (theory: you’re pretty immune with all that people contact; also, you’re more likely to have a balanced life with a positive attitude)

  • Parents are more likely to be resistant to the common cold (all those nasty kid germs help build immunity)

  • Stressors like parental divorce and non-parental communication increases your risk of getting the common cold, even into adulthood (interestingly enough, this same study found that divorced parents who still communicated with each other did not have the same effect)

  • ‘The man cold’ is a thing! Multiple studies have found that men are significantly more likely to overrate their cold symptoms than women

  • Personality and attitude effect your susceptibility to the common cold as well

  • if you think you’re stressed, you are more likely to get a cold

  • if you think you’re not stressed, you are less likely to get a cold, even if you really are – the power of the mind strikes again!

Real Life Takeaway

Especially when you are feeling stressed, be sure to practice self-care and think positive to reduce illness. Easier said than done . . . I should take my own advice!


Cohen, S., Alper, C. M., Doyle, W. J., Adler, N., Treanor, J. J., & Turner, R. B. (2008). Objective and subjective socioeconomic status and susceptibility to the common cold. Health Psychology, 27(2), 268-274.

Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Turner, R., Alper, C. M., & Skoner, D. P. (2003). Sociability and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychological Science, 14(5), 389-395. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.01452

Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Doyle, W. J., Miller, G. E., Frank, E., Rabin, B. S., & Turner, R. B. (2012). Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(16), 5995-5999. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118355109

Janicki Deverts, D., Cohen, S., & Doyle, W. J. (2016). Dispositional affect moderates the stress‐buffering effect of social support on risk for developing the common cold. Journal Of Personality, doi:10.1111/jopy.12270

Macintyre, S. (1993). Gender differences in the perceptions of common cold symptoms. Social Science & Medicine, 36(1), 15-20.

Murphy, M. M., Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Doyle, W. J. (2017). Offspring of parents who were separated and not speaking to one another have reduced resistance to the common cold as adults. PNAS Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 114(25), 6515-6520. doi:10.1073/pnas.1700610114

Park, S.G., Kim, H.C., Min, J.Y., Hwang, S.H., Park, Y.S., and Min, K.B. (2011). A prospective study of work stressors and the common cold. Occupational Medicine 61(1), 53-56.

Sneed, R. S., Cohen, S., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2012). Parenthood and host resistance to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, 74(6), 567-573. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e31825941ff

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