Warm Hugs Ward Off Colds
Clayton Velicer, MPH
Health goals are the most popular New Year’s Resolutions, such as losing weight, quitting smoke, exercising more, and eating healthier. It’s widely accepted that social support can help people achieve these health goals. However, did you know that social support can even protect you from catching a cold?
A recent study examined the effects of hugging and perceived social support on a person’s vulnerability to respiratory viruses.
At the start, participants were interviewed by telephone on 14 consecutive nights regarding the availability of social support. These nightly interviews asked questions about social activities, interpersonal tension or conflicts, and whether participants had been hugged.
One to 3 weeks after completion of the interviews, the participants were placed in “quarantine” in separate rooms on an isolated floor in a local hotel. Blood assessment of baseline antibody levels were conducted during the 5-day period before exposing participants to the viruses. Participants also received an examination of the ears, nose, and throat; and provided a nasal-wash specimen that was cultured for existing viral infection.
After collecting baseline data, participants received nasal drops containing a small amount of two viruses that cause a common cold-like illness. Approximately 28 days after viral exposure, blood was collected to measure the level of antibodies to the viruses.
Who Got the Cold?
The investigators found that both hugging and perceived social support had an impact on the risk of infection. For example, the percentage of days on which participants received hugs was inversely related to infection risk; in other words, being hugged more frequently was associated with a lower risk of infection (OR = 0.39).
Perceived social support was not found to have a direct effect on infection rate. However, the authors found that social support moderated the relationship between the percentage of days participants experienced tension and risk of infection. More specifically, experiencing more frequent tension was associated with increased risk of infection among participants with lower levels of social support, whereas among those with higher support, tension was unrelated to infection.
Lead author Sheldon Cohen shared thoughts on the hug findings in a recent news release highlight on Fox News, “Being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress.”
Cohen also added that “the apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy… Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”
Buffering Effect of Social Support
This article builds on earlier work by Cohen that explored the mechanisms of how social support may impact health. This study adds more evidence to prior findings that show the buffering effect of social support on health. This may be particularly useful to think about during high stress times of the holiday season or cold winter months when colds and flus are more common.
Furthermore, what is particularly interesting about this research is that it isolated the impact of a simple social act (hugs) that is not generally thought of as critical to one’s health. This year, as we think of ways to be healthier, don’t forget to make time for friends and don’t hesitate to go in for the hug.