stress and life-threatening infections

A recent study has been carried out in Sweden, investigating the association between severe stress and life-threatening infections.

Experiencing chronic or exaggerated psychological stress can impact various physiological systems, which may increase the likelihood of disease. Past studies in animals and humans have shown that stress causes changes to the ‘hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis’ (our central stress response system) which affects biological function such that the immune system can then be compromised. For example, individuals that have experienced psychological stress have been noted to have an increased risk of respiratory virus infections.

When talking about stress-related disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress reaction and other stress reactions; we are discussing a group of psychiatric conditions which are triggered by a trauma or other life stressor. Individuals with stress-related disorders are considered to be a population who have, as a result of severe stress, a physiological dysregulation. Researchers in Sweden decided to investigate the association between severe stress and life-threatening infections.

The researchers of this study conducted a study involving the Swedish population. 144,919 individuals with stress-related disorders were found from the nationwide registers in Sweden from 1987 to 2013. These individuals were then compared with 184,612 siblings of individuals with a diagnosis of stress-related disorder and a further 1,449,190 paired individuals without a stress-related diagnosis.

The results of the study demonstrated that during a follow-up period of approximately eight years, the occurrence of life-threatening infections per 1000 person was 2.9 in those diagnosed with a stress-related disorder, 1.7 in siblings without a diagnosis and 1.3 in the paired individuals without a diagnosis. The highest risk observed was for the life-threatening infections meningitis and endocarditis.  In addition to this, those with a diagnosis at a younger age in conjunction with substance use disorders were shown to have higher risk ratios. However, those who use selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (a type of antidepressant) within the first year following diagnosis were shown to have an attenuated hazard ratio.

The results of this study suggest that after controlling for family background, physical and psychiatric conditions there is a potential association between stress-related disorders and life-threatening infections within the Swedish population.


Written by Jade Marie Evans, MPharm


Reference: Song, H. 2019. Stress related disorders and subsequent risk of life threatening infections: population based sibling controlled cohort study.[Online]. [27 November 2019]. Available from:

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

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