January 20, 2019
group hug

Can Hugs Head Off Colds?

by Berkeley Wellness  

Some people avoid hugging and other physical contact because they fear it will expose them to cold viruses and other “germs.” That makes sense when the other person is obviously sick, but if this is carried too far it’s unfortunate, since hugging is an important way to express concern, empathy, reassurance, and affection. What’s more, hug avoidance may actually be counterproductive as a cold preventive, if a well-designed study in Psychological Sciences is right. Hugging, it turns out, is a good indicator of and contributor to social support (very important for health, as we’ve reported) and thus may offer protection against stress and help boost immunity.

Researchers interviewed 400 healthy adults about their social support and interpersonal conflicts, as well as about how often they were hugged. They focused on conflicts because previous research has suggested that people experiencing such stress tend to be more susceptible to cold viruses. The participants were then exposed to a cold virus, kept in quarantine, and monitored to assess infection (via blood tests) and signs of illness.

Those who reported greater social support and more frequent hugging were less likely to become infected than those with less support and hugging—and had milder symptoms when they did get sick. In particular, people who were experiencing significant conflicts in their lives were more likely to get sick if they reported little social support and hugging. When the researchers teased apart the effect of hugging, they estimated that it was responsible for one-third of the benefit of social support. They controlled for age, sex, relationship status, and personality characteristics (extroversion, neuroticism, and agreeability).

This doesn’t mean you should double or triple the amount of hugging you do as a way to boost immunity. If hugging is not your thing, it may first make you stressed (and your acquaintances may think you’ve undergone an odd personality change). Moreover, in some cultures and circumstances, hugging is less—or not—acceptable, and other shows of support would be more appropriate.

Bottom line: Whether the seemingly protective effect of hugging is due to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a marker for support and intimacy, it’s great to know that something that feels good is actually linked to good health.