Stress-induced upper respiratory symptoms are not unusual. Stress has a powerful effect on the immune system, as the circulation of high levels of the excitatory hormones that accompany stress undermines its defense mechanisms, often producing symptoms such as those of the common cold.
How Does It Work?
Stress suppresses the activity of the immune system, principally due to the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. When under the impact of a significant stressor, the immune system is “flooded” by cortisol and other hormones and its functioning is, at least temporarily, greatly reduced. Thus, pathogens, such as those producing the common cold, have a relatively easier time entering and proliferating in the upper respiratory system.
This is the most prevalent theory of why people get sick while under stress. It does not affect everyone in the same way, however. For some people, it is not until the stressor is removed that adverse symptoms begin to manifest. In this case, it is almost as if the relaxation produced by the removal of the stressor had the effect of making the individual more vulnerable.
What Can Be Done?
A doctor once was asked how long it would take to cure a cold. His answer was, “Oh, about seven days if you take this prescription, or about a week if you decide not to take anything.” Beside the joke, there is truth in the fact that there is no cure for the common cold, either stress-induced or otherwise. It will generally resolve itself, with or without medication, in about a week or so.
Something can be done however to reduce the effects of stress on the immune system. Some people find help in ingesting large quantities of vitamin C at the onset of their respiratory symptoms. Others find that remedies such as hot baths, hot drinks with honey, breathing exercises, yoga or meditation all have beneficial effects on the effects of stress, and thereby, on the immune system.