Social Relationships and
Susceptibility to the Common Cold
Social relationships are thought to have both negative and positive influences on the ability of our bodies to resist infection. On the negative side, social conflicts are a common cause of stressful environments, including chronic problems at home and work and acute major stressful life events involving family, friends, and workmates. Laboratory studies have found that experimentally induced marital conflicts suppress cellular components of immune function (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1993) and epidemiologic studies have linked family conflict with higher risk for naturally acquired upper respiratory infections (Clover, Abell, Becker, Crawford, & Ramsey, 1989; Meyer & Haggerty, 1962). On the positive side, social relationships provide many benefits, including facilitating the motivation to care for oneself, allowing for more effective regulation of emotional responses, and providing support in the face of stressful events (Cohen, 1988; Thoits, 1983). The most provocative evidence that links social relationships to better physical health is the well-established association between participation in multiple social domains (family, friends, work, group memberships) and decreased mortality (e.g., Berkman & Syme, 1979; House, Robbins, & Metzner, 1982). This relation has been reported in multiple prospective studies and has a relative risk (isolated people are approximately two times more likely to die during follow-up) that is comparable in magnitude to the relation between smoking and mortality (e.g., House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988).
The research reported in this chapter assesses the role of social conflicts and social participation in susceptibility to upper respiratory infections. In our studies, we characterize the social environments of healthy volunteers. Subsequently, we expose them to a virus that causes a common cold. Approximately 40% of those exposed develop a verifiable illness. Hence, we can ask whether the status of their social environment before exposure predicts whether their bodies are able to resist infection.