Being lonely can not only be a heavy emotional burden, but also make your cold worse, according to a study published in Health Psychology.
The researchers found that once someone came down with a cold, their symptoms, including a runny nose, sneezing and sore throat, were likely to be more severe if they also reported to feel lonely.
Study author Angie S. LeRoy and a team of researchers asked 213 healthy adults to complete questionnaires related to their loneliness, social networks and mood before they were infected with the common cold through nasal drops.
The infected volunteers were then quarantined for five days and asked to keep a record of the severity of their symptoms on a five-point scale. Out of all the participants, 159 had developed a cold and had complete data.
The participants who were lonely were no more likely to fall ill with the cold than the others, but once they were sick, they were 39 percent more likely to report higher severity of their symptoms than those who were not lonely.
However, they discovered that feeling worse was not linked to the size of a person’s social network. “It doesn’t matter if they had a large social network,” said LeRoy. “It mattered about how they felt about their social network.”
Researchers then examined the weight of the mucus produced by each participant and saw no link to loneliness. In other words, the lonelier participants were not more physically sick, but they just felt worse.
“Loneliness wasn’t necessary[sp] associated to how biologically ill they were in terms of the severity of their cold but it was associated with how severe they perceive their symptoms to be,” LeRoy told the Guardian.
The study did not measure how or why loneliness is causing the perception of more severe symptoms, but the authors noted that people who are lonely tend to have worse sleep.
Previous studies have linked loneliness to serious illnesses that could be cause for public health concern.
“In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated,” said Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology. “There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.”
In culmination of this new finding and previous studies, LeRoy says doctors should consider their patients’ mental health when treating or diagnosing them.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.