Hugs help protect against the common cold, research finds

Flu season is upon us, and doctors are predicting that this year’s epidemic could be especially severe. What steps are you taking to protect yourself from disease this winter? Stocking up on hand sanitizer? Chugging orange juice? Avoiding handshakes and crowded subway cars? How about hugging your friends?

Wait, what? A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that frequent hugging helps reduce individuals’ susceptibility to infections associated with stress, and reduces the severity of symptoms if an infection is contracted by providing increased social support.

Their findings, published in the journal “Psychological Science,” were based on a study of 404 healthy adults. After completing a survey designed to establish their perceived level of social support, participants were asked how often they experienced interpersonal conflicts, and how often they often they received hugs during a series of phone interviews. The researchers then exposed participants to a common cold virus and monitored them for symptoms.

“We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses,” Sheldon Cohen, lead author of the study, explained in a release. “We tested whether perceptions of social support are … effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection.”

Not only did perceived social support reduce participants’ risk of infection, but among those infected, participants who reported greater levels of social support and received more frequent hugs experienced less severe symptoms. According to Cohen, “this suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress.”

It is not clear whether the reduced risk of infection is a result of the physical act of hugging itself, or the intimacy and support associated with the gesture. Either way, it is a good excuse to give your loved ones an extra squeeze this winter.

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