Welcome to this guide on
handling coughs and colds
in the elderly

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As a member of the elderly community or indeed somebody caring for an elderly person, it will give you important information on how to avoid getting sick, and how to care for coughs and colds should they happen.

Why the elderly are more vulnerable

Firstly, it is important to note that the elderly are among the most likely groups of people to get sick. This can be the case for number of reasons, one being that as we get older, our immune systems become weaker. This makes it much easier for bacteria and viruses to take hold and make us unwell.

However, studies have suggested that perhaps we are more vulnerable to infection as we get older due to overreactive immune systems. Dr Daniel Goldstein of the Yale School of Medicine claimed that “it is possible that heightened immune responses – rather than defective immunity – attack the body and lead to disease in these individuals”.1

Either way, it is evident that different immune functions in the elderly result in higher risks of infection from diseases like the common cold and influenza (flu).

Elderly man with a cold

Signs and symptoms

A key part to handling coughs and colds is identifying the symptoms, and in the case of the elderly, identifying them early is better.

Flu symptoms include2:

  • an aching body
  • tiredness or exhaustion
  • a dry cough
  • a sore throat
  • headaches
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite
  • sudden fever of 38 degrees or above
  • sweats

It’s vital to remember that, with the elderly, symptoms like this can become worse, which can result in further, more serious problems.

Elderly lady taking her temperature

Potential complications

If the symptoms of cold and flu worsen, they can lead to other health complications, particularly in the elderly community. Older adults suffer most seriously with complications from flu and are more likely to be hospitalised due to it.3

There are symptoms which you will want to keep an eye out for to be able to act quickly should they arise. So, if you experience the following signs, contact your doctor immediately:

Plus
  • having difficulty breathing
  • symptoms have NOT improved after 3-4 days
  • symptoms suddenly show signs of a more serious condition developing. For example, the following symptoms may indicate signs of bacterial pneumonia:
  • nausea
  • shaking/chills
  • high fever
  • chest pain
  • coughing with a thick yellow – green mucus4

Bacterial pneumonia is a common and severe complication of the influenza virus, and the symptoms above can be key to catching it early.

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Other complications of influenza include:

  • bronchitis
  • dehydration
  • encephalitis
  • sinusitis
  • ear infections

Treating the different symptoms

When treating coughs, colds and flu in the elderly, there are several things you can do to remedy the symptoms. Currently, there is no ‘cure’ as such for the flu, so getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated is the best advice. However, here are some tips for remedying some of the symptoms for yourself or your older adult.

It is important to note that it is not recommended you take antibiotics to help treat cold or flu, as they will not relieve symptoms or help speed up recovery. This is because cold and flu are caused by viruses, whereas antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections.5

Congestion

A decongestant spray can often help to reduce swelling in the nasal passages, making it easier to breathe. Take note, however, it’s not recommended to use a decongestant spray for more than a week at a time6; and before doing so consult your doctor as some decongestants can react with some medications.

Runny nose/itchy and watery eyes

Some antihistamines, specifically brompheniramine and chlorpheniramine can help to relieve common cold symptoms such as sneezing and a runny nose. They ease feelings of discomfort7.

Sore throat

Drinking warm liquids or gargling with warm salt-water can help relieve a sore throat. Also, over-the-counter treatments such as lozenges and throat sprays can also help ease discomfort.

Fever and body aches

When using over-the-counter treatments for cold and flu, it is important to consult your own or your elderly loved one’s doctor before taking them. This is to make sure they are suitable to be taken with medication they may already be taking.

Another rule of thumb is to check if your cold and flu medication already contains pain relief drugs, so you don’t take other forms of pain relief with them. This will ensure that you do not take over the recommended dose of drugs like ibuprofen, and paracetamol.

Elderly lady having an injection

Prevention as the
most beneficial measure

Of course, the most proactive way to tackling cold and flu, is taking steps to prevent them. Ensuring you take the best measures in looking after your health helps the chances of you and those around avoiding catching a cold or the flu.

These include:

  • getting a flu vaccine – particularly important for seniors, as getting a flu vaccine can reduce the risk of getting the flu and reduces the severity of complications of the virus. Read more about getting a vaccine for the elderly person you care for here.
  • maintaining good hygiene – regularly washing your hands is a great way of getting rid of germs, especially after interacting with young children.
  • avoiding crowds – placing yourself in big crowds of people can increase the chance of catching a cold or the flu from somebody who is unwell, particularly in poorly ventilated areas.
  • strengthening the immune system – maintaining a healthy diet will help strengthen the immune system and fight infections. For the elderly, vitamin supplements can also assist in keeping a healthy diet.

Tips for caregivers and family

Unwell elderly lady being given a cup of tea and lemon

Caring for the elderly can be difficult at times. This is not only because of the changes in approach that you must take, but also the approach to heath that they might have. Sometimes, elderly people may not feel it necessary to see a GP over something like coughs, colds and flu which can lead to further complications. It is recommended to try and learn the reasons behind your elderly loved one refusing to go to a doctor, as there are many reasons why they may avoid it.8