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 depression. 

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.

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!

  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 :-)

  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

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