10 cold and flu prevention tips for older people

Reviewed by Dr Patrick Ruane

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are more conscious than ever about protecting ourselves and our older relatives from respiratory infections. Unfortunately, ageing can affect the immune system, meaning people become more susceptible to falling ill with a cold or flu as they get old. Cold and flu season is a risky time of year for people aged 65 and older – even a simple cold can potentially lead to pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.

Why are older people at higher risk of developing serious colds and flu complications?

Older people have lower immunity to bacteria and viruses, as our bodies produce fewer immune cells as we age. If they catch a cold or flu, they are more likely to have worse complications. Older people may suffer serious complications from the flu if they don’t get treatment early enough for their illness. The most common ones include pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Pneumonia is a bacterial infection that causes fluid build-up in the lungs. ARDS also happens when there is too much fluid build-up in the lungs, and can be fatal if left untreated.

How do you protect an elderly person from colds and flu?

While there’s no way to completely prevent your parents from catching a respiratory virus, there are still a number of things you can do to help strengthen their immune system and lower their risk of getting dangerously ill.

Here are 10 tips to protect against colds and flu.

1. Get a flu shot every year

Flu vaccines protect people both from catching the flu and from getting severely ill. Flu vaccines are given free on the NHS to people who are aged 50 and over and are available via the GP or at certain pharmacies. There are different strains of flu, and the vaccine is updated for each winter flu season to ensure protection against the strains of flu that are most likely to be circulating. This is why it is important to get the vaccine each year.

It is best to ensure your parent gets vaccinated before the beginning of the flu season in October or at least by the end of December as it takes three weeks to fully develop protection from the vaccine against the flu. Further details on the flu vaccine can be found on the NHS website

If you’re parent is 65 or over, they will also be eligible for a vaccine that protects against pneumonia. Most older adults will only need to get the pneumonia vaccine once, but those who are at higher risk may need a booster every five years. 

2. Wash your hands often

It sounds obvious, but hand washing is crucial for preventing the spread of infectious disease from viruses and bacteria. However, it can be easy to forget (especially if you have a failing memory) and many people don’t wash their hands thoroughly enough for long enough. 

The World Health Organisation recommends washing hands for at least 20 seconds.  The NHS has a video on how to wash hands properly here. While hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol is useful as a backup, it doesn’t beat soap and running water.

3. Disinfect surfaces and objects frequently

It is important to disinfect surfaces and objects frequently, as cold and flu viruses can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours.

Pay attention to germ hot spots, including stair railings, bathroom counters, door knobs, light switches, and kitchen counters. You should also disinfect their mobile devices. Mobile phones and tablets contain millions of germs. Use sanitising wipes or rubbing alcohol to clean them.

4. Drink enough fluids

It can be easy to get dehydrated in the winter with the windows closed and heating turned up. But staying hydrated is important when it comes to flu and cold prevention as it promotes saliva and mucus secretion to lubricate the throat and nose and help clear airways of viruses and bacteria.

If your parent does get sick, they may not feel like eating or drinking which means you need to be extra vigilant in keeping their fluid intake up.  You may also want to consider getting them a humidifier to combat dry air in the home.

5. Stay warm

Body temperature has been shown to affect how well you can fight cold and flu infections, so it is important for your parents to stay warm. The room temperature in their main living room, or wherever they spend most of their time, should be around 18-21ºC and the rest of the house at least 16ºC.

It’s worth investing in thermal undergarments for them when it really gets cold, as older people also often feel the cold more due to a variety of reasons, including thinning skin and certain health conditions.

6. Get plenty of good quality sleep

A proper night’s sleep is essential for supporting a healthy immune system and is often overlooked.  Older people can sometimes struggle with sleep – either they have problems falling asleep or wake up frequently in the night. 

People often also believe that you don’t need as much sleep as you get older.  But everyone should aim for 8 hours of sleep a night.  This has a number of important benefits for staying well in old age, beyond simply supporting the immune system. If your parent does fall sick with a cold or flu, proper bed rest and plenty of sleep will also help them fight off the infection and recover more quickly. 

7. Avoid crowds during cold and flu season

It’s not a bad idea for older people to try to avoid crowds during cold and flu season, to reduce their risk of getting an infection. If they can’t avoid crowds, ensure they take hand sanitizer out with them and wear gloves on public transport.

They should ideally stay off public transportation as much as possible until the flu season has passed.

8. Eat a balanced diet including Vitamin C and Zinc

Ensuring a healthy immune system to fight off colds and flu at any age includes eating a healthy, balanced diet. Make sure your parent’s diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods, and lean meats.

Foods rich in Vitamin C and Zinc are especially important for supporting the immune system. Good sources of vitamin C include broccoli, kiwi fruits, red peppers, oranges and kale.  Vitamin C cannot be stored in the body so it’s important to have it in your diet every day. Good sources of Zinc include meat, fish and seafood.

It is better they obtain the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C (40mg per day for adults) and Zinc (7 – 9.5mg) from their diet rather than supplements. However, if their appetite or diet is poor, then it’s worth checking with their doctor about taking supplements.

9. Exercise and minimise stress

People who exercise regularly have been found to have fewer colds and have milder symptoms. This is because exercise boosts your circulatory system, which pumps white blood cells (which fight off infection) around the body. 

Exercise does not need to be vigorous – in fact it shouldn’t be, as intense exercise can have the opposite effect; it can simply be going for a walk or being active around the house for 30 minutes a day.

Equally, it’s important to keep the stress levels down and exercise is a good stress-reliever. Minimising stress also includes ensuring your parent isn’t lonely. Studies have shown a link between stress and loneliness and poor resistance to illnesses like colds and flu.

10. Get advice if they feel unwell

Older people have low immunity to any disease. If your parent is over 65 and does fall unwell from a cold or flu, it’s important to seek advice from their GP or local pharmacist, or by contacting NHS 111.

In summary

Older people are generally less immune to colds and flu. If your parents are over 65, it’s important you or they consider ways to boost their protection against infection during the winter season.

If you’re concerned about your parent or elderly relative’s health or suspect they have the flu, speak with their doctor. They can help you find the best way to manage their symptoms, prevent illness and stay healthy.

Common questions

  • What is the best way to prevent the flu?

Annual vaccination is considered to be the most effective way to protect elder people against flu. You should take them to their GP or a pharmacy before the flu season to get their flu shot.

Another way to boost immunity against flu and respiratory infections is to eat a healthy balanced diet including foods that are rich in Vitamin C. In addition, it helps to avoid crowds and anyone who is already infected, especially during winter. And don’t forget to stay warm and well hydrated!

  • How do you know if someone has the flu?

Flu symptoms include body aches, headache, fatigue, chills, breathing difficulty, dizziness, fever, cough, muscle pain, weakness, and diarrhoea. If your parent or an elderly relative in your care feels any of these symptoms, take them immediately to their healthcare provider. It is important to get medical care before the situation worsens.

  • How long does the flu last?

Flu symptoms usually develop over 1-4 days following exposure to the virus. Most people take around one week for complete recovery. However, if you don’t recover within a week, you make an appointment to see a doctor.

  • What are some complications of getting sick with a cold or flu?

In older people, flu complications include pneumonia and heart, brain, or muscle inflammation. The situation can worsen if they don’t get medical care immediately. That’s why it is so important to seek medical assistance straight away if they exhibit symptoms.

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