In a new study, in which participants infected with the cold virus, people who said they felt lonely also reported more severe symptoms. This was despite an objective measure of how bad their cold was not finding the same association.
This US study involved around 200 people who filled out questionnaires on loneliness and their social network. They were then given a cold virus through nasal drops and were quarantined for the next five days in a hotel.
The researchers looked at how those infected with the virus went on to report symptoms. They found that those who had scored highly on loneliness were more likely to report worse cold symptoms but were actually no more likely to catch a cold.
Size and diversity of social network did not seem to have an effect on perception of cold symptoms. Instead it was the people’s perception of whether or not they felt lonely that seemed more important when it came to self-reported cold symptoms. So people may have lots of social contacts but still feel socially and emotionally isolated from others.
The results of this study reinforce the point that loneliness can have an impact on health outcomes. A 2013 study found social isolation was even linked with an increased risk of death in older people.
Cold Case Series Study
This was a case series study, meaning there was a defined group of people who participated in the study and all received the same intervention, in this case infection with rhinovirus 39 (RV39), a common cold virus. This type of study cannot prove cause and effect, that reporting feeling more lonely made people more likely to report worse symptoms. ‘
Tiredness, for example could contribute to reporting both.
The study was carried out by researchers from Rice University, the University of Houston and the University of Delaware, all in the US. Participants were all followed over five days in quarantine to see whether those who reported being more lonely at the start reported worse cold symptoms than those who said they were not lonely.
Of the total sample of 213, 159 became infected with the virus.
Those infected were analysed in greater detail:
Lonelier people reported more severe cold symptoms than less lonely people. These results remained even when accounting for confounders such as age, sex, education, income, marital status and body mass index.
Loneliness was linked to more severe self-reported cold symptoms, independent of social network size and social network diversity.
Patients who were lonely were no more likely to get infected with the virus than less lonely participants, even after adjusting for demographics, season of participation, depressive affect and social isolation.
Social network size did not predict severity of cold symptoms and neither did number of social roles.
This study shows that when people are infected with a common cold virus, there seems to be an association between how lonely people say they are and the self-reported severity of their cold symptoms.
However, loneliness did not make people more likely to get a cold in the first place.
The researchers concluded:
“The perception of loneliness is more closely linked to self-reported illness symptoms than objectively measured social isolation. Assessing psychosocial factors such as loneliness when treating and evaluating the common cold could contribute to health care practitioners’ understanding of their patients’ experiences with acute illness.”
From the findings in this study, it seems that the quality of social relationships and the feeling of loneliness are more important than the quantity of relationships and the social roles people play. A possible ironic consequence of the social networking age is that some people may have lots of “friends”, via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but lack actual emotional engagement with others.
The study was funded by a range of institutes in the US, including the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.