The Common Cold and Brain Function

By: Jenna Savage

Having a head cold can be rough experience. It often presents with symptoms that lead to discomfort, distraction, and even trouble sleeping. Those symptoms would be more than enough to tackle on their own, but it turns out that head colds actually do more than cause sneezing, sniffling, and headaches. In fact, a recent article by The Wall Street Journal reports that whether or not cold symptoms are present, having a cold may actually cause changes within the brain.

A study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity describes the results of research into the way head colds affected 189 U.K. participants. Scientists tested healthy subjects in areas like memory, reasoning, verbal skills, mood, and reaction time. They also examined how well the participants slept and rated any potential cold symptoms. Of those 189 subjects, 48 developed head colds and were retested in all of those areas after the illness had been present between 24 and 96 hours. The healthy group was retested after 12 weeks had elapsed.

Results showed that the healthy group and the group of participants who developed colds had significant differences. The subjects with colds found that their alertness was impaired, their reaction time had slowed, and their ability to process information had been impaired as well. Results also showed that it is possible that having a head cold impairs learning, as test results had improved for the cold-free group, despite the fact that memory and recall remained unchanged between the two groups.

The exact reason behind impaired cognition is an area that needs further research. In particular, the assessment of cold symptoms was provided by the participants themselves. The measures of the severity of the head colds were therefore subjective, rather than objective, and may have been subject to bias. However, the fact that head colds do seem to affect learning and other cognitive processes offers significant insight cold-related impairments, and raises new, important question about the physiology of the brain in relation to illness. Researchers call into question inflammatory proteins, neurotransmitters, and other possible physical explanations for declined brain functioning.

To read the study in its entirety, you can visit ScienceDirect.

Doctors recommend that sick patients take the time to rest and drink plenty of fluids. Cold medication can help ease symptoms, but will not cure a cold. The best medicine is taking it easy. As having a cold will slow down your brain’s processes, resting your mind and taking care not to overwork can lead to a quicker recovery.