Health Library: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

Older Adults and the Common Cold

Cold and flu season is hard on everyone, but for older adults who may have chronic health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it’s especially challenging.

Having a respiratory infection can make managing those chronic conditions more difficult. And older adults are at greater risk for complications from the infection, or even unpleasant drug interactions between prescription medications and over-the-counter cold medications.

Preventing infection is the best approach during cold season. But if you do get sick, knowing how to take care of yourself can ease your discomfort.

Preventing the common cold

The best way to deal with the common cold is to avoid it. Here are steps that can help:

  • Wash your hands. One of the most effective ways to prevent infection is to wash your hands frequently. As a quick alternative, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Avoid people who are sick. Especially in the winter, when almost everyone seems to have a cold or a cough, it may be a good idea to limit the time you spend around people who sneezing and wheezing.

  • Use tissues for your own sneezes and coughs. This may not help you avoid a cold, but you can avoid passing one on. Throw tissues in the trash immediately.

  • Drink lots of water. Staying hydrated is an important part of maintaining good health.

  • Stay physically active. Some studies suggest that people who are physically active are less likely to get sick with a cold.

  • Avoid cigarette smoke. If you smoke, quit – and steer clear of people who smoke. Smoking has been shown to reduce the body’s immunity to respiratory infection.

  • Follow a healthy diet. A well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help keep you healthy and cold-free.

  • Manage stress. When people are stressed, their immune system is weaker.

  • Get enough sleep. Studies suggest that people who do not sleep well or long enough are more likely to get sick with colds and other infections. Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep every night.

  • Find a doctor you like. Research shows that patients who feel that their doctor genuinely cares about their health get over colds sooner. If you are not completely comfortable with your doctor, look for someone else.

  • Get vaccinated. Vaccines are not just for babies. Even older adults may need certain shots, such as a yearly flu vaccine, a shingles vaccination, and pneumococcal, or pneumonia, vaccination. This is to prevent complications that can occur when you become sick with a cold.

Coping with a cold

If you’re sniffling, sneezing, and stuffed up, you probably have a cold. Colds are caused by viruses. This means that you cannot expect antibiotics, which fight bacterial infections, to end your cold. Instead, you may benefit from medications that help treat the symptoms of a cold, such as congestion and coughing. If your doctor also recommends an antibiotic, make sure you understand why. Sometimes antibiotics are recommended to treat additional infections or prevent bacterial infections that can take advantage of your cold.

The good news is that colds usually get better within seven to 10 days. Here are some ways to cope with the common cold:

  • Get lots of rest.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

  • Use a saline nose spray to make your nose more comfortable.

  • Take a steamy shower. Warm, humid air can help loosen up some of the congestion you’re feeling and ease your discomfort.

  • Avoid cigarette smoke.

  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers to manage pain or a fever.

  • Use cold medication wisely:

    • Read the instructions. If you have questions about a medication, ask your pharmacist for clarification.

    • Make sure you are not taking too much of certain pain relieving ingredients that could be in both your cold medication and your over-the-counter pain reliever. If you are in doubt, show all the medications you are taking to a pharmacist or doctor for help.

    • If you are on medication for a chronic condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or if you take dietary or herbal supplements, talk to your pharmacist or doctor about whether the medications you usually take and the cold medication you are considering could combine for an unpleasant drug interaction. Remember that both your doctor and your pharmacist are supportive allies in your fight to feel better.

  • Use room humidifiers as needed. Make sure you understand how to use and clean your humidifier. Regular cleaning is important so that mold doesn’t grow inside it, causing more irritation for your airways. The EPA offers these basic tips for keeping your humidifier in good working order:

    • Use distilled water.

    • Clean and dry the humidifier and all its parts at least every three days.

    • Use a 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution for cleaning.

    • Do not leave water standing in your humidifier when you are not using it.

    • Keep the area around your humidifier dry.

    • Clean and dry all parts before storing your humidifier.

    • Contact your doctor immediately if you have respiratory symptoms that seem to get worse with the use of the humidifier.

The common cold is usually more of a nuisance than a serious medical problem, but be sure to call your doctor if you’re concerned about any of your symptoms and how they might be affecting any health conditions you have.