I recently came across a study published this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine looking at the association between sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold.

In this study, 153 healthy men and women between the ages of 21-55 were asked to record their sleep duration and sleep efficiency (the amount of time they actually slept divided by the amount of time in bed) on a daily basis for 14 days. At the end of this period, they were placed in isolation, and given nose drops containing rhinovirus, the virus which causes the common cold. Cold symptoms were monitored starting one day prior to exposure and during each of the 5 days following exposure to the cold virus.

66 participants (43%) developed a cold following exposure to the virus. The researchers found that those study participants who slept fewer than 7 hours/night on average during the 14 days preceding the exposure were almost three times more likely to develop clinical signs of a cold than those who slept 8 or more hours/night on average during that time. Likewise, people with sleep efficiency less than 92% were five and a half times more likely to get sick than those whose sleep efficiency was greater than 98%. The differences in developing a cold could not be explained by differences in levels of antibodies to the cold virus, the season, the participants' body weight relative to height, age, or socioeconomic status. There was no correlation between whether a participant reported feeling well rested after a night's sleep and whether or not s/he became infected.

Why is insufficient sleep associated with an increased susceptibility to infection? The researchers suggest that this may have to do with the way sleep regulates the expression of inflammatory mediators, and that alterations in their levels may, in turn, lead to variability in the way that symptoms are expressed. The lack of correlation between feeling well rested or not and infection suggests that there is a need for a certain quantity of sleep, and that even though we may not feel sleepy, this does not change the body's basic need.

As described in previous posts, insufficient and/or poor quality sleep is associated with a whole host of health problems, all of which are more serious than coming down with a cold. Still, the protective effects of getting adequate sleep may well extend to other types of infections, and as we all know, there's no such thing as being too healthy. This gives one more reason to turn off (the TV, computer, cell phone), tuck in, and get a good night's sleep.




Dennis Rosen, M.D.

Learn how to help your child get a great night’s sleep with my new book:

The Harvard Medical School Guide to Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids: Helping Your Child Sleep Well and Wake Up With a Smile!


About the Author

Dennis Rosen, M.D.

Dennis Rosen, M.D., is a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist who practices at Boston Children's Hospital.