Background: The study – published in the journal Psychological Science – stemmed from the idea that hugging provides social support, as it represents having a close relationship with another person. Past research has shown that people engaged in continuous conflict with others are less able to fight off cold viruses, while those who have social support appear to be protected from the psychological effects of stress, such as anxiety and depression.
The Study: To reach their findings, the team asked 404 healthy adults to complete a questionnaire designed to determine their perceived social support. In addition, the participants engaged in 14 consecutive evening telephone interviews with the researchers, in which they discussed their conflicts with others and hugs they had received. Next, subjects were deliberately exposed to a common cold virus and placed in quarantine while the researchers assessed any signs of infection and illness.
- The researchers found that participants who reported having greater social support while experiencing conflicts were less likely to be infected by the cold virus, and hugs were found to be responsible for around a third of this protective effect.
- What is more, participants who did become infected with the cold virus and who reported having greater social support and more frequent hugs displayed less severe symptoms than those who reported lower social support and fewer hugs, regardless of whether they experienced conflicts or not.
The author offered that receiving a hug from a trusted person may trigger a sense of social support, and hugging more frequently could reduce the damaging effects of stress. The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy. Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.
Unlike hugging, kissing does not appear to have protective effects against infection. Last month, Medical News Today reported on a study that found just one kiss for 10 seconds transfers around 80 million bacteria. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter (and no, I will not be on the street corner wearing a sign offering free hugs; I’m from New England after all!).
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Reference: Medical News Today, 21 December 2014