Linda Wasmer Andrews

Minding the Body

Study Discovers Who Can Protect You From Colds and Flu

With the right support, you can build a defense against germs.

Posted Dec 28, 2014

Poprotskiy Alexey/Shutterstock

Frequent hugs may help you stay healthier this cold and flu season. Here's how:

Chronic stress can dampen the body’s immune response, increasing the risk of catching an upper respiratory infection like a cold or the flu. But hugging helps counter this increased susceptibility, according to a recent study.

Hugs Under the Microscope

The study was led by psychologist Sheldon Cohen, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease at Carnegie Mellon University. Previous research by Cohen had shown that people with stressful, ongoing relationship problems were less able to fight off a cold virus. The new research investigated whether social support, in the form of hugs, could help protect people against this effect of stress.

The study included 404 healthy volunteers, who completed a questionnaire about social support and then took part in daily phone interviews for two weeks. In the interviews, volunteers were asked whether anyone had hugged them that day. They were also asked about any conflicts or tension with other people.

Next, the volunteers allowed researchers to intentionally expose them to a cold virus. Afterward, they were closely monitored, in quarantine, for signs of infection and illness. Infection was assessed by checking for the virus in their nasal mucus, and for specific antibodies in their blood. Illness was assessed by looking at nasal mucus and congestion. (How do you measure a person’s daily output of nasal mucus? Simple. Researchers bagged and weighed each day’s worth of used tissues. After subtracting the weight of the bag and tissues, a heavier load indicated a snottier nose.)

What We've Learned

In volunteers with low social support, ongoing conflict and tension increased the risk of becoming infected with the cold virus. But in those with high social support, the increase in risk vanished. This suggested that feeling supported by others offset the immune-weakening effects of stress.

One way of showing support is by hugging. In this study, hugs accounted for about one-third of the protective effect of social support.

Ultimately, about three-quarters of all volunteers became infected by the cold virus during the study. Within this group, nasal congestion cleared up faster in those who had previously reported getting more social support, including frequent hugs.

More Snuggling, Less Snuffling

Warm hugs help you feel cared for, and that sense of being supported makes it easier to cope with life’s difficult situations. By reducing stress, frequent hugs may help you stay healthier. In particular, because stress weakens the body’s immune response, hugging may help you ward off upper respiratory infections. And if you do come down with a cold? Just knowing that you have someone in your corner may help you get well faster.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master’s degree in psychology. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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