The sensory impact of a cold.

I have talked in the past about how in the days before coming down with some kind of illness I can be prone to meltdowns, almost as if I am reacting to the illness before I even know I am ill. When I say illness this can apply to anything, even a simple cold like the one I woke up with this morning. But I have not had any meltdowns for some time now, and I felt fine in the days leading up to this, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about in this blog. As I say I don’t always have a meltdown before I come down with something, but having a meltdown or being stressed-out/ grumpy with those around me can be a sign I am coming down with something. But what I noticed this time that I have not thought too much about in the past, is how much worse my sensory issues tend to get when I have a cold.

I find it so much harder to be around others (I have spent most of today in my room) and I think this has quite a bit to do with the sensory impact of a cold. Most colds don’t come with any pain (if you are unlucky you might get a headache) but they do hit your senses. Take the one I have today – no pain at all to speak of, but a blocked nose, a fuzzy feeling in my ears, and a constant strange taste in my mouth. At times I find myself getting hot and starting to sweat, and at other times my eyes start to water. I have noticed today more than ever before how stressful those things can be. It feels as if I can only spend a few minutes around other people before I have had enough, and I start to snap at them, or just have to go and be on my own again. That’s not because of how bad I feel, as I say it is only a cold, in fact if I were in pain I know that I would cope much better. I have a high pain threshold and can keep quite calm when in pain. But I think the key thing about a cold is how it hits all your senses.

It’s hard to explain, but it’s as if my body is having such a hard time processing all this extra sensory input that I hardly have any space left for any more sensory input, such as people talking to me.

I tend to find that pain is much more easy to deal with; it might be bad but it tends to stay in one place, and it’s easier to cut off from the rest of my body. Even when I have been in the worst pain of my life I have been much more able to sit and talk with people, and process what they have to say to me than I am when I have a pretty normal cold. So it’s not just a case of me feeling sorry for myself. But when all your senses are working overtime, thrown off balance and struggling to keep up with what is going on it’s hard to have any space/ability left to cope with other day to day sensory inputs. This is something I have never thought much about before, but when I talked to my Mum about it she said that she often feels the same thing. Because I am autistic I do not process sensory input in a passive way, and therefore the more inputs I have to deal with the harder my mind has to work to process them all. Processing what someone is saying to me takes a lot more active engagement for me than it would for someone who was not autistic, and when I am thrown off balance by strange sensory input (such as feeling suddenly very hot, or having a blocked nose and the strange feelings that come with that) it seems to have very little energy left to engage with, and process anything else.

You could make the argument that if you feel ill, even if it’s only with a cold, then you are going to be more irritable and less able to focus anyway, but as I say this is something I have noticed specifically in relation to colds.

As soon as my nose starts to clear, and my ears no longer feel as fuzzy I can get on with much more normal stuff again and spend time around people, but when I am fully in the grip of a cold I can barely even be around others for a few minutes before I am overloaded, and need to get away from them. I find myself much more able to keep working through pain than I am to work with a cold, and overall colds are much more disruptive to me than just about anything else. I do think there is a link between the sensory effect of a cold on the body, and my lack of ability to deal with day to day sensory issues such as people talking to me when I have one.

I wonder if any of you have noticed the same thing? Does a common cold have more of an impact on you than feeling real pain would? And if so do you think that impact is due to the sensory impact of a cold?

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6 thoughts on “The sensory impact of a cold.

  1. Having a cold often leaves me feeling as if an elephant is sitting on my sinuses ( so I find it hard to focus my eyes). Add to this the sensation that people are speaking to me from the bottom of a swimming pool because my ears are clogged…. If I am particularly unlucky, the my taste buds swell up and drinking cold liquids give me the sensation of drinking …. pus ( Yuck) Yes, I think colds and flu are a sensory challenge because the symptoms disrupt a system which is already very sensitive. They change my whole world because they interfere with my perception of my environment.

    1. Thats just it. ” interfere with my perception of my environment.” is a good way of putting it. It can throw me off work or even doing the most basic of things in a way pain never could.

  2. This is so true for me. I’ve had cold for the last week or so, and have really struggled with almost everything, but especially people talking to me and also textures (such as clothes touching my skin). It’s like I’m disconnected from what people are saying, and unable to process it. My responses during conversations have been quite strange too. I’ve only been able to deal with the small/odd items that I’m interested in, generally missing the main point of the conversation. I was also very out of sorts (and having small meltdowns) for 2 days before the cold arrived, so what you are saying here really helps me to make sense of what I’ve just experienced. I’d never thought about it like this before!

    1. Glad it could help! That sounds a lot like how things are for me before I get a cold and while I have one. Strange how something that would otherwise feel like a small thing can end up having such a big impact.

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