Parents Half as Likely to Get Sick When Exposed to Common Cold Viruses, Reports Study in Psychosomatic Medicine

Newswise — Philadelphia, Pa. (July 2, 2012) – Being a parent reduces your risk of catching a cold—possibly because of unknown "psychological or behavioral differences between parents and nonparents," according to a study in the July issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a part of Wolters Kluwer Health.

The risk of becoming ill after exposure to cold viruses is reduced by about half in parents compared to nonparents, regardless of pre-existing immunity, according to research led by Rodlescia S. Sneed, MPH, and Sheldon Cohen, PhD of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. The study suggests that other, yet unknown factors related to being a parent may affect susceptibility to illness.

Being a Parent Protects Against ColdsThe researchers analyzed data on 795 adults from three previous studies of stress and social factors affecting susceptibility to the common cold. In those studies, healthy volunteers were given nose drops containing cold-causing rhinovirus or influenza viruses.

After virus exposure, about one-third of volunteers developed clinical colds—typical symptoms of a cold plus confirmed infection with one of the study viruses. The analysis focused on whether being a parent affected the risk of developing a cold, with adjustment for other factors. The results showed a lower rate of colds among parents, compared to volunteers who were not parents. In the adjusted analysis, the risk of developing a cold was 52 percent lower for parents.

That might be expected on the basis of immunity—kids get colds, and parents may develop protective antibodies against the specific viruses causing those colds. However, the lower risk of colds in parents could not be explained by pre-existing immunity, based on levels of antibodies to the study viruses. Parents were less likely to develop colds whether or not they had protective levels of antibodies.

The protective effect of parenthood increased along with the number of children (although there were limited data on parents with three or more children). Parents were at reduced risk of colds even when they didn't live with any of their children. In fact, parents with no children at home had an even larger, 73 percent reduction in risk. The risk of colds was lower for parents in most age groups. The only exception was parents in the youngest age group—18 to 23 years—for whom the risk of colds was no different than for nonparents. There was no difference in the risk of colds for parents who were married versus unmarried. Psychological or Behavioral Factors May Play a Role"We found parenthood predicted a decreased probability of colds among healthy individuals exposed to a cold virus," Sneed and coauthors write. The effect is independent of parental immunity, suggesting that psychological or behavioral factors could be involved.

However, the study permits no conclusions as to what those protective factors might be. One possibility is that being a parent improves regulation of immune factors (cytokines) triggered in response to infection. Previous studies have shown that cytokine responses explain the protective effects of psychological factors—such as lower stress or a positive attitude—against cold risk.

But more research will be needed to clarify just how being a parent could affect the body's response to cold viruses. Sneed and colleagues conclude, "Our results, while provocative, have left room for future studies to pursue how various aspects of parenthood (eg, frequency of contact with children, quality of parent/child relationships) might be related to physical health, and how parenthood could 'get under the skin' to influence physical health."

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About Psychosomatic MedicinePsychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, founded in 1939, is the official peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. It publishes experimental and clinical studies dealing with various aspects of the relationships among social, psychological, and behavioral factors and bodily processes in humans and animals. Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine is an international, interdisciplinary journal devoted to experimental and clinical investigation in behavioral biology, psychiatry, psychology, physiology, anthropology, and clinical medicine. The print journal is published nine times a year; most articles are published online ahead of print.

About the American Psychosomatic SocietyThe mission of the American Psychosomatic Society is to promote and advance the scientific understanding and multidisciplinary integration of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in human health and disease, and to foster the dissemination and application of this understanding in education and health care.

The American Psychosomatic Society is a worldwide community of scholars and clinicians dedicated to the scientific understanding of the interaction of mind, brain, body and social context in promoting health. The organization is devoted to biopsychosocial research and integrated clinical care, and to providing a forum via its website, Annual Meeting and journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, for sharing this research. Its members are from around the world, including specialists from all medical and health-related disciplines, the behavioral sciences, and the social sciences.

About Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (LWW) is a leading international publisher of trusted content delivered in innovative ways to practitioners, professionals and students to learn new skills, stay current on their practice, and make important decisions to improve patient care and clinical outcomes. LWW is part of Wolters Kluwer Health, a leading global provider of information, business intelligence and point-of-care solutions for the healthcare industry. Wolters Kluwer Health is part of Wolters Kluwer, a market-leading global information services company with 2011 annual revenues of €3.4 billion ($4.7 billion).

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