The link between depression and the common cold

Disclosure – this post is mainly me complaining.

I woke up at about 4am on Christmas morning with what I thought was a migraine. I sometimes get migraines while I’m asleep, and it’s not much fun. You wake up and it takes a little while for you to realise you have a headache, and then WOOSH, there it is.

I thought maybe I was just excited. (I do love Christmas.) I thought perhaps it was just my body’s way of letting go of the pre-Christmas stress, (we had some passport issues…), and getting ready to enjoy itself. It didn’t go away though, and I ended up being a bit of a Christmas damp squib, try as I might to fend things off with my mum’s supply of Lemsips. (She has a bit of a Lemsip habit.)

We flew home from my sister’s in Ireland on the 28th and I thought I’d start to perk up once I was back at home, but my sinuses were not keen on the flight and things didn’t improve.

Fast forward another week and here I am at home, coughing away, generally feeling sorry for myself.

flu and despression


Pathetic isn’t it?

I don’t get ill very often, (which I think is because I’m generally a bit grubby and not very good at things like hand washing), and so when I do I find it very frustrating. I like to feel happy, and excited about the day ahead. I know it probably sounds a bit lame, but I actually quite enjoy going to my little office and answering emails and pottering about. I look forward to the small things like getting a nice coffee on my walk to work, or going out at lunch time to take photos of front doors.

Since Christmas though, I feel like something is missing. I’ve lost that spark that makes me do things like arrange toys around the house in silly positions, just to make myself laugh every time I see them. I mean sure, I still do it, but I’ve not been getting the same joy from it.

fox playing the piano

In fact, I was beginning to get a little bit worried about myself, so I did a bit of reading, and it turns out that colds and flu can actually trigger feelings of negativity and whilst I’ve heard of people using CBD to help with anxiety and depression and the like, I was more interested in the why.

This seems to work in two ways. Firstly, the physical symptoms of a bad cold or flu are very similar to that of depression – fatigue, loss of appetite, no energy etc. Your mind and your body are pretty well connected, so if you start to feel those symptoms, and you have experienced them before as part of depression, I reckon your mind is going to start panicking.

Mine definitely has. That’s the annoying thing about depression – it’s often the thought of it that’s the scary bit, so when you start to feel those symptoms sniffing around, it can be frightening. The usual remedies of getting out of the house, exercise, work and generally keeping busy don’t work, because you feel too ill to do any of them.

I get out my laptop, think about working, feel overwhelmed and I freak out. The rational part of my brain says ‘you have a cold, give yourself a break!’ The less rational part says ‘but you only get overwhelmed by work when things are going wrong…’

There’s another, more physical reason behind it too apparently. When you get sick, your immune system releases chemicals called cytokines to help fight the infection. While the cytokines are fighting your bugs though, they also are lowering your serotonin levels.

Not cool.

Then of course there’s sleep – you tend not to sleep as well when you’re ill, and lack of sleep can make you feel low. Not sleeping well for a long time, according to this article from, can actually have pretty serious consequences, so the impact of a lack of sleep on your mood should not be underestimated.

The good news is that once you start to feel physically better, your mental health should improve too. The reassuring thing about a bad cold or flu is that you know it’s going to get better relatively quickly, so you just need to ride it out. Working for myself makes that hard, as there is an awful lot of guilt attached to simply staying in bed, as no one pays you for a cheeky day or two off sick.

Anyway, I just wanted to write this partly for sympathy, but also to reassure you that if you have been poorly this Christmas and are feeling scared or sad, that it’s okay – it’s probably just your immune system doing its bit and hopefully you’ll feel better very soon.

And now I’m going back to bed.



  1. 4 January, 2017 / 11:12 pm

    Feel better soon. I have chronic depression so I feel super poop with a cold. Either way, when you’ve been depressed feeling those familiar oricklesvsre horrible. It’s good to know that it’s only temporary.

    • Jo Middleton
      5 January, 2017 / 11:05 am

      That’s it isn’t it? It’s ‘feeling the feelings’ that’s horrid. I’ve come in to work today and getting back into the routine is already making me feel better, so fingers crossed!

      • Shellie
        26 December, 2018 / 11:00 pm

        Thank you so much for this article❤️

  2. stephen Holman
    5 January, 2017 / 9:07 pm

    we’ve been poorly sick over christmas and new years too ! it sucks!! plus loads of people at work had the same cold/flu/coughing lurgey urgh!! definitely depressing when you cant enjoy christmas properly with the family!!

    • Jo Middleton
      6 January, 2017 / 11:18 am

      It really sucks! How are you meant to enjoy a mince pie when you have no appetite?? :-(

  3. Claire
    5 January, 2017 / 9:50 pm

    This is exactly me at the moment! I’ve had a cold on and off for about four weeks which is making my anxiety feel so much worse. Thank you for this post – it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who feels like this at the moment. Sod off, January!

    • Jo Middleton
      6 January, 2017 / 11:18 am

      You’re definitely not alone! Roll on British Summer Time…

    • Arlene
      14 November, 2017 / 4:06 pm

      Meeee toooo! From USA- thanks- thought I was “loosin’ it”- nice to know I’m not alone in this.

  4. 6 January, 2017 / 1:47 am

    Good post :), I’ve been the same for the past week :(. Got to try putting toys in silly positions sounds fun.

    • Jo Middleton
      6 January, 2017 / 11:17 am

      It’s amazing how doing stupid things like that can lift your spirits :-)

      • 10 January, 2017 / 8:24 pm

        Plus it’s funny :)

  5. tom
    14 March, 2017 / 11:23 pm

    I enjoyed reading the article. I recently took two days off after the weekend because I was not feeling well with a cold. It seemed like a long time ago when I had a cold. I had depression a lot because I got thinking about how my world is going to collapse. It’s the depression talking.

    I liked the theory of cytokines. I read that before somewhere else. I have two personal theories as to why I get depressed during a cold. One is that the oxygen level drops because your head is stuffed up; and you’re not taking in as much oxygen as normal. Second is insomnia. You don’t sleep well because you’d be blowing your nose all night and not feel comfortable. And you may not sleep well because you had been resting all day and would not feel tired when going to bed.

    I don’t know if you theories make sense to others. That’s what I have noticed for me.

    • Jo Middleton
      15 March, 2017 / 11:39 am

      I’ve never thought about the oxygen levels, that’s interesting, but the tiredness is definitely a factor – I always feel worse mentally when I’m lacking sleep.

  6. Knir
    27 November, 2017 / 7:09 pm

    Hey Jo,

    I knew about the mechanism of cytokines but… the way you put it – you almost reassured that ‘its ok’. Thanks – makes a different

    – coughing,phlegming, head ache, throat-ache day 2

  7. Shelley
    28 December, 2017 / 8:22 pm

    I feel so much more positive after reading this, I have had a really bad cold since the day before Xmas eve. In fact probably the worst one I’ve actually ever experienced in my 34years. Today is the first day that I can actually breath through my nose after 6 long days and instead of feeling joy at the fact that I seem to be on the road to recovery finally, I actually feel very low and emotional. I don’t feel any positivity like I thought I would and that my spark has went out! I hope this feeling does not last and am clinging to your words, thank you!

  8. Travis Penner
    7 January, 2018 / 10:37 pm

    oh thank you. I was getting worried about being depressed because I haven’t been sleeping well with this brutal cough. Your article gives me hope. Soon this too will pass!!

  9. Mary
    11 January, 2018 / 11:15 pm

    I got sick ( with a cold or flu) two days ago and I was feeling fine, until yesterday, everything plummeted. What is this? Why am I depressed? is it because I’m staying home and not going to work? Is it my hormones? ( I am 50 something you know) so I got on my computer ( which is what I normally do when I want answers) and I saw your post. Thank you sooooooo much for writing it. I feel much better knowing I’m not going crazy and that this will pass. God uses people to reach out to others. Take care and keep on writing.

  10. Cecilia
    6 March, 2018 / 7:27 pm

    Thx for posting. I have a cold and am feeling a bit depressed at the moment. Glad to know that I am not the only one.

    • Jo Middleton
      7 March, 2018 / 1:36 pm

      Definitely not just you! I hope you feel better soon. x

  11. Ron
    10 April, 2018 / 11:18 pm

    I’m battling a cold and the depression related with it. The spring is taking a long time to take hold in my hometown. Also, 14 members of a junior hockey team died in a road accident this past weekend. All of Canada is mourning. On the plus side, I have my 42nd birthday and a trip to Europe coming up next month. I take naps and listen to meditation music. This can’t last forever.

  12. Kevin Smith
    18 April, 2018 / 7:33 pm

    I suffer from a near permanent, low-grade depression and have done so now for decades.

    Strangely, and nobody I’ve shared this with understands why, sometimes when I have that stuffy nose feeling just before coming down with a cold my depression almost completely subsides!

    But not every time. If anyone can explain this please reply?

    • Jo Middleton
      23 April, 2018 / 10:59 am

      Oooh, I’ve not heard that before! I can’t think where the connection could be there?

      • Kevin Smith
        23 April, 2018 / 4:23 pm

        My guess is that some types of cold trigger antibodies that somehow change brain chemistry so that things are more balanced.

        Or maybe a stuffy nose affects the blood-brain barrier in some way that alters things.

        A third guess is that coming down with a cold depresses brain activity and that would help if my depression was linked to hyperactive thinking processes.

  13. K
    18 April, 2018 / 11:42 pm

    This article has just made me feel much better. I thought I was going to start another battle with depression but you’ve given me hope!

  14. Vicki bright
    21 June, 2018 / 11:05 am

    Me too, all of the above, mine has lasted 3 weeks, and i feel unhappy, tied, withdrawn, and mad I have missed out on all my fun things, and I have to back to beginners class at gym. Good reminder though, it will pass!! Depression is such a waste of time

  15. Betty o Connor
    31 July, 2018 / 1:15 pm

    I’m here in Ireland in my 60s suffering from a head cold. My sinuses are blocked and I am depressed and worrying about everything. Glad to know I’m not alone and the head cold is the reason why I’m feeling down. Betty

  16. Tim
    26 September, 2018 / 9:44 pm


    I have same symptoms, bad cold two weeks ago and now I feel really down, like stresssed and worrying, waking up with palpitations and sweating thinking the worst, I am glad I have reall all post as this makes me feel better, hopefully on the mend soon

    • Jo Middleton
      2 October, 2018 / 11:02 am

      Hope you feel better soon Tim!

  17. Sandra Maclean
    31 December, 2018 / 12:05 pm

    Huge thank you to you for your post. I took a cold on Christmas eve and started feeling anxious about 3 days in. I have anxiety anyway, but the feeling of my ears being weird and dull, stuffy nose, absolutely no smell or taste and being light headed has made me feel claustrophobic and anxious. I had to phone in sick at work today and have an appt with the nurse later which I am dreading because I have to go out alone. It was good to read that I am not alone and your post was written with great humour which is what I’m relying on to get me through this. Love to anyone feeling rubbish right now. I’m looking forward to not peeing my pants whenever I cough lol. X

  18. Susan
    6 April, 2019 / 7:25 am

    I’ve been feeling depressed – so often the prelude to a cold – and now the cold itself has come on. Thank you so much for this article, Jo, and for reminding us that it’s normal to feel down at times like this. And thank you, Sandra Maclean, for sending love to those of us who are feeling rubbish – I trust you’re 100% better now.

  19. Alan
    12 December, 2019 / 8:07 am

    My girlfriend moved in 7 weeks ago with me and moved about an hour away from all her friends. She has my family here but hasn’t made any new friends yet. She already suffers anxiety and depression but bless her she now has a cold/chest infection and is feeling extremely low. She says she’s finding everything really tough to deal with. I’ve tried to reassure her it will pass and she will feel better. Any words of encouragement for her as she’s really low and it worries me. Thank you.

    • Jo Middleton
      12 December, 2019 / 10:29 am

      That sounds really tough for both of you – losing that regular contact is really hard. I’d definitely encourage her to keep in touch, even if it’s just phone calls or Facetime, as that kind of interaction will really help. More generally has she been to the GP or asked to be referred for any counselling or CBT? You can do CBT online now I think. Organisations like Mind can also help with information and advice on day to day things you can do. Good sleep, good diet and getting outside and having some regular exercise are all very beneficial, although often the last thing you feel like doing!

  20. brenda firebaugh
    9 January, 2020 / 12:16 am

    so glad you posted this, I have been feeling so down and now I know why. I have had a cold for 2 weeks, now beginning to get better and mentally also. I went the opposite way, was so hungry I could eat my arm off but now appetite is back where it should be thank goodness. I was getting fat which made me more depressed. Today I feel good, yes this too shall pass.

  21. Gina
    22 January, 2020 / 3:29 pm

    Wow, I’d not known about the cytokine connection! Makes me feel a lot better just reading that. Sitting here on day 4 of a cold, barking bronchitis, low as a toad. I know it’s not terribly serious but this stuffy head makes me feel quite vulnerable and ‘not myself’. Reassuring to know there’s a physical, chemical component to these fearful, depressed feelings…thanks, everyone, for sharing! xo

  22. Gab
    2 April, 2022 / 1:13 pm

    My hypothesis is that it works both ways, that is what I was googling when I found your article, perhaps looking for ancient wisdom :D Depression would lead to a decreased immune system and would also be a physical representation of depression/sadness in one way. Like if you let the sadness accumulate inside you will get physical symptoms. Perhaps crying is a way to let it out, anyway I think it helps to fully live those emotions as a way to clear them out. What you mention is interesting though, working the other way, since I think the cold triggers Serotonin production (which isnt the “happy” hormone they say, but way more complex and actually can lead to depression through serotonin syndrome, anyway it is a numbing hormone, and may create brainfog) + the brain inflammation leading to depression again. And as your body requires you to be put in a state of rest, it is way more likely to fall into depression than say, mania, like a state of urgency/motion would permit.

  23. Rosie
    9 September, 2022 / 2:32 am

    Five years later … When I got COVID last spring, I remember being hit by low energy and depression. Now anytime I get a cold, the same depressive feelings creep in. It takea all my willpower to remind myself that my body is fighting infection and that I need to focus on positive, forward-moving thoughts. Thanks for your post.

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