You’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 2017 study published in Health Psychology suggests that if you’re feeling lonely, you could feel even worse.
Experts have known for years that loneliness is bad for our health. Loneliness is associated with a great risk of heart problems, high blood pressure, and strokes. It is also linked to depression, which contributes to illness and disability, affecting 300 million people worldwide. (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 with their permission), 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.
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.
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.