Lack of Sleep Increases Likelihood of Catching a Cold

cold sneeze
cold sneeze
Sleeping less than five hours per night resulted in a 4.5 times greater risk of rhinovirus taking hold.

With fall quickly approaching, millions of cases of the common cold are not far behind. But new research suggests that making a minor change could help reduce susceptibility.

Lack of sleep is increasingly being considered an epidemic among people young and old, as demands from work, home, and distractions like social media and technology drive Americans to sleep less and less. As if feeling groggy the next day wasn’t bad enough, new research indicates that not getting enough sleep can actually make you more susceptible to the common cold.

Aric A. Prather, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues found that people who sleep six hours or less per night are more than four times as likely to catch a cold when exposed to the virus. The results, published in Sleep, are the first to use objective sleep measures to connect sleep habits to risk of illness.

“It goes beyond feeling groggy or irritable,” Prather said. “Not getting sleep fundamentally affects your physical health.”

Researchers collected lifestyle and sleep data on 164 participants (ages 18 to 55 years) between 2007 and 2011. Baselines for factors including stress, temperament, and alcohol and cigarette use were established through interviews and questionnaires, and normal sleep habits were measured a week prior to the administration of the cold virus using a wearable sensor that collected data on sleep quality throughout the night. Participants were quarantined, administered nasal drops containing the rhinovirus, and subsequently monitored over five days for development of a clinical cold.

Researchers found that those who slept less than 5 hours per night the prior week were 4.5 times more likely to get the cold, while those who slept less than six hours per night were 4.2 times more likely to come down with the illness compared to those who slept move than seven hours per night. The association remained even after accounting for factors like antibody levels, demographics, time of year, BMI, psychological variables, and health practices.

“Short sleep was more important than any other factor in predicting subjects’ likelihood of catching cold,” Prather said. “It didn’t matter how old people were, their stress levels, their race, education or income. It didn’t matter if they were a smoker. With all those things taken into account, statistically sleep still carried the day.”

“In our busy culture, there’s still a fair amount of pride about not having to sleep and getting a lot of work done,” Prather said. “We need more studies like this to begin to drive home that sleep is a critical piece to our well-being.”


  1. Prather AA et al. Sleep. 2015; doi:10.5665/sleep.4968.