The Relation Between Stress and the Common Cold

Stress management is life management.
If you take control of your stress, your life will thank you for it!
– Unknown

Want more control in reducing the likelihood of catching the common cold this winter? Stress management may provide a feasible answer! 

Stress is commonly known to play a major role in health, and as such the role of stress has been heavily examined by health research. Importantly, not all stress is the same. In fact, stress can be categorized into 3 main categories: Acute stress (short lived), Episodic stress (recurrent) and Chronic stress (longer in duration) (American Psychological Association, 2017). For the purpose of this article we will focus mostly on chronic stressors and their role in increasing susceptibility to the common cold virus.

Can stress really cause colds?

In 1998, a research team inoculated (infected) participants with the common cold and kept them under observation at a hospital where the research was conducted. They went forward with this experiment because previous research had identified stress as a factor that increased the likelihood of developing infections such as the common cold. The researchers in the study wanted to go further and identify the types of stressors that lead to increased susceptibility to colds. By assessing both acute and chronic stressors independently they could determine that chronic stress (more specifically, interpersonal stressors and occupational stressors) played a significant role in increasing one’s susceptibility to developing a cold (Cohen, et al., 1998).

Why would stress cause colds?

The cause of this interaction between chronic stress and colds is thought to be related to the physiological response to chronic stress. When an individual is chronically stressed, the body goes through the activation of a pathway called the HPA-axis. The activation of the HPA-axis leads to the release of hormones, including cortisol (commonly referred to as the stress hormone). With regards to the common cold, the increased cortisol does two important things: it leads to a cycle of continued production of cortisol by blocking the HPA-axis’s ability to turn itself off; thus, suppressing the immune system by blocking communication. Cortisol inhibits the body’s ability of calling immune cells for help (called: interleukin signals), thus reducing immune functioning (Lehrner, Daskalakis, & Yehuda, 2016).

How can one reduce stress or the impact of stress on the immune system?

Research has demonstrated that having a strong social support network and experiencing high positive affect help buffer against the effects of chronic stress (Deverts, Cohen, & Doyle, 2016). Of further note, moderate exercise (Stults-Kolehmainen, & Sinha, 2013), employing positive coping styles (Health Canada, 2008), practicing mindfulness and stress reduction techniques like yoga, meditation and breathing exercises (Mayo Clinic, 2015) are all good examples of ways to reduce chronic stress and its consequences.

When chronic stress becomes overwhelming, never hesitate to contact counselling and psychotherapy services for support.


  • American Psychological Association (APA). (2017). Stress: The different kinds of stress.
  • Cohen, S., Frank, E., Doyle, W. J., Skoner, D. P., Rabin, B. S., & Gwaltney, J. M. (1998). Types of stressors that increase susceptibility to the common cold in healthy adults. Health Psychology, 17(3), 214-223. doi:10.1037//0278-6133.17.3.214
  • 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: Trait affect, stress buffering, and colds. Journal of Personality, doi:10.1111/jopy.12270
  • Kim, Hyung-Ran, et al. “Immune Dysregulation in Chronic Stress: A Quantitative and Functional Assessment of Regulatory T Cells.” Neuroimmunomodulation, vol. 19, no. 3, 2012, pp. 187–194., doi:10.1159/000331586.
  • Lehrner, A., Daskalakis, N., & Yehuda, R. (2016). Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in PTSD. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, 265-290. doi:10.1002/9781118356142.ch11
  • Mayo Clinic. (2015, November 05). Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity. Retrieved from
  • Stults-Kolehmainen, M. A., & Sinha, R. (2013). The Effects of Stress on Physical Activity and Exercise. Sports Medicine, 44(1), 81-121. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0090-5

About Author

Tarek is a pre-med honors Health Psychology student at Carleton University, with a minor in Neuroscience and Mental Health. Currently, an undergraduate Health Psychology researcher, Tarek values the sharing of knowledge related to the biological, psychological, and social model of health.

The Relation Between Stress and the Common Cold (43)

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