Loneliness Makes Illness Feel Worse
Sniffing, sneezing, coughing. Blech. It’s bad enough suffering through the common cold, but having a cold while also feeling lonely are a particularly bad combination, according to new research from Rice University.
In a study, brave participants were given cold-inducing nasal drops and bundled off into hotel rooms for five days of quarantine. Watch the results soon on reality TV. I’m kidding; this is science, people!
Participants were measured on a Short Loneliness Scale and a Social Network Index, and the results showed that those who had tested as lonely were no more likely to catch a cold then those who weren’t. But there was a difference: For those who did catch the cold, the lonely people experienced more severe symptoms.
Going in, the researchers were already aware that, “Loneliness puts people at risk for premature mortality and all kinds of other physical illnesses,” study author Angie LeRoy wrote. “But nothing had been done to look at an acute but temporary illness that we’re all vulnerable to, like the common cold.” The study made a distinction between feeling lonely and social isolation. “This paper is about the quality of your relationships, not the quantity,” LeRoy wrote. “You can be in a crowded room and feel lonely. That perception is what seems to be important when it comes to these cold symptoms.”
“Anytime you have an illness, it’s a stressor, and this phenomenon would probably occur,” wrote the study’s lead author, Rice psychologist Chris Fagundes. “A predisposition, whether it’s physical or mental, can be exaggerated by a subsequent stressor. In this case, the subsequent stressor is getting sick, but it could be the loss of a loved one, or getting breast cancer, which are subjects we also study.”
Doctors should take psychological factors like loneliness into account when they are seeing patients, the study’s authors suggest.
The study is also inspiration to keep our social networks strong. That way, when we do feel ill, we won’t feel quite so crummy.
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.