Ah-choo! How does your monthly cycle affect colds?

My Hormonology

Ah-choo! How does your monthly cycle affect colds?


A friend of mine who recently caught a cold thought it would be a great idea to talk about how cold symptoms might differ during each week of a woman’s menstrual cycle.

While there aren’t any studies that specifically examine cold symptoms across the menstrual cycle, there is plenty of research that shows how your hormones impact your energy, sleep quality, pain sensitivity, mucus production and mood–which can end up helping you deal with cold symptoms or could exacerbate their effects.

So, here’s a quick rundown of how you might experience a cold depending on where you are in your cycle:

Week 1: Extra double double-whammy
Day 1 (first day of your period) to Day 7

If you develop cold symptoms during the first part of your period, you could feel more sapped as you get a fatiguing double-whammy: You’re losing energizing iron as you bleed and a cold tends to sap your pep.

But, that’s not the only double-whammy you might deal with: If you’ve got menstrual cramps, then adding aches from a cold on top of them can really make you wonder what you did to anger the Universe to deserve such an uncomfortable fate.

The good news? By the middle of your Week 1, you may experience a boost in energy, mood and resilience as estrogen climbs higher and higher and period fatigue and pain peter out.

Week 2: The good, the bad, the sniffly
Day 8 to ovulation (which is Day 14 in a 28-day cycle)

I can never decide whether to be stoked about developing a cold during my Week 2 (that is, if I had no choice about being sick) because the symptoms are a tad easier to deal with–or to be irritated about losing a precious high-energy, high-mood, high-everything Week 2 to a lousy cold.

You’ll probably experience this same quandary yourself if you get sick in your Week 2. That’s because high estrogen can help you get over a cold hump more easily than other weeks of your cycle: Thanks to this hormone, you’re getting sounder sleep (which helps you feel better faster), you have more energy (which doesn’t mean you’re going to be zipping around town, but it does help stop you from faceplanting into your keyboard) and your mood and resilience are at cycle-long peaks, so you’ll probably be doing less whining (unless you’re like me and view whining as medicinal as vegetable soup).

The downside is that you might get fooled by all this extra energy and stalwartness into believing you can push yourself to do more through your sickness (such as working, going to school or socializing), which can slow down the healing process.

One other downside of a Week 2 cold: You could experience more nasal symptoms during the latter half of this week. Research shows that high estrogen on these day can trigger swelling and inflammation in your sinuses and more mucus production. So, have an extra batch of tissues handy!

Week 3: You are getting sleeeepy
Begins day after ovulation and lasts 8 days (Day 15 to Day 22 in a 28-day cycle)

I always know the moment I’ve entered my Week 3: It’s like I hear a cartoon “Screeeech!” of brakes slamming in my head and my body goes from high estrogen Week 2 super-speedy to a super-slow crawl that makes a geriatric turtle look like he’s racing a Grand Prix. All I want to do is sleep, sleep, then sleep some more. That’s because progesterone rises throughout your Week 3–and this hormone has a sedating effect. So, when I develop a cold in my Week 3, you can imagine how difficult it is for me to keep my eyes open as the virus drains what little pep I have left.

So, too, may you experience a serious drain in energy, leaving you too pooped to do anything more than blow your nose, sip soup and dream about the days you weren’t feeling so darned tired and lousy.

Now, even though you’re tired, you may notice sleep isn’t as restful during the first three days of your Week 3. That’s because estrogen nosedives on these days, which drags down your brain’s level of sleep-regulating serotonin. This can lead to more tossing and turning and middle-of-the-night awakenings. However, during the latter half of this week, estrogen and progesterone both rise together–and this produces some of the deepest, most restorative sleep you’ll have all cycle long. Take advantage of this awesome-sleep effect by clocking extra zzzs on these days and it could help you recover faster.

Week 4: A fine whine
Final 6 days of your cycle

When I get sick in my premenstrual Week 4, everyone knows about it. My husband. My sisters. My neighbors. The mail carrier. There isn’t a person within a five-mile radius I don’t whine to about it. That’s because a drop in estrogen can make cold symptoms feel so much worse: Your mood is prone to going south already, and feeling achy, sore and congested is no recipe for mustering cheery feelings.

Low estrogen is putting your energy on the low end of your menstrual cycle scale–so having a cold can drain the last bit of it you had to cling to. Yet, despite your intense fatigue, it’s still more difficult to get good quality sleep because plunging estrogen decreases the level of serotonin in the brain–further dragging your mood and energy south.

You can see why whining is almost a must when ill during your premenstrual week, right?

Want to dodge a cold?

When you’ve caught a virus, of course it’s key to rest and drink plenty of fluids to get better. But, if you want to avoid getting sick in the first place, here are a few study-proven tips:

1. Wash your hands even more: It’s important to wash your hands frequently during the latter half of your Week 2 (the days leading up and including ovulation) because high estrogen weakens your immune system slightly and thins mucus on these cycle days, making it easier for cold and flu viruses to take hold. Why does this happen? Since this is a fertile time of the month, researchers speculate that a lowered immune system prevents the body from targeting sperm as a harmful invader and thinner mucus helps sperm pass through your cervix more easily for a better chance at conception.

But, these Week 2 days really aren’t the only cycle days you should be using soap and water (or hand sanitizing gel in a pinch) more often: It’s key to focus on hand cleaning more frequently on every day of your cycle–especially after touching germy hotspots like shopping cart handles, ATM buttons and anyone else’s hand–because this one simple step can lower your risk of falling ill. The proof: A study of 16,908 people in the journal The Lancet shows that folks who increased their hand-washing from six to 10 times per day reduced their risk of catching a cold, flu or stomach virus by 14%. I’ll take those illness-thwarting odds any day!

Tip: You don’t need antibacterial soap to rid yourself of germs. In fact, research suggests it may even be more harmful then helpful to use them. Scrubbing up with any kind of regular soap for 30 seconds and rinsing thoroughly is enough to wash them away.

2. Gargle with tap water: Folks who gargle with plain ol’ tap water three times daily reduce their risk of catching a respiratory illness by 36%, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. While the researchers aren’t sure why this works, they theorize that the water may flush viruses from the throat, preventing them from taking hold. Already caught a cold? Switch to gargling with salt water, which reduces pain and inflammation.

3. Pop probiotics: In an analysis of 12 studies, researchers found that taking probiotics daily reduced the frequency of colds in adults and children. Researchers believe that once probiotics reach the gut, they send immune-boosting messages to the body, making it more effective at fending off viruses. Look for a probiotic blend that contains Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum. Here’s the one I take three times daily.

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