Cold and Flu in the Elderly: Signs and Symptoms

Aug 19, 2016

Cold and Flu in the Elderly: Signs and Symptoms

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The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus, influenza, which attacks the body in the upper and lower respiratory tract. It is highly contagious and generally affects groups of people spending time in close contact in places like schools, offices and nursing homes. Flu season typically occurs from the month of November to March.

The symptoms of the flu are similar to those of the common cold, however, the flu is much worse. While a cold may slow you down, the flu may not even allow you to get out of bed.  This can be especially true for those aged 65 years or older.  While the average adult might be stuck in bed with aches and pains for a few days, older adults find themselves at increased risks for falls, injuries, and complications. It is critical that you know the symptoms of influenza and its complications to keep the flu season from turning deadly.

Signs and Symptoms of the Flu

It is important for you and your senior loved one to know the signs and symptoms you should be looking for so that you can prevent the flu from becoming deadly. Flu symptoms will start 1 to 4 days after being infected. These symptoms may include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • A runny nose or congestion
  • Body aches or pain
  • Headaches

Usually, only children will have stomach symptoms such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, but it is possible for adults to show these symptoms as well.

From Bad to Worse

There are certain symptoms that you will want to be aware of that may indicate more serious problems or complications. Contact your doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • Have difficulty breathing 
  • Symptoms do not improve or they worsen after 3 to 4 days
  • Overall symptoms DO improve, but then you suddenly develop signs of a more serious condition. The following signs may indicate bacterial pneumonia:
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • High fever
    • Shaking, chills
    • Chest pain
    • Coughing with a thick yellow-green mucus

If you or your senior loved one have the flu and experience any of the above symptoms indicating something more serious could be wrong, contact your primary care provider immediately.

Complications of the Flu in the Elderly

Older adults suffer the most serious complications and are more likely to be hospitalized or die from the flu. Around 90 percent of flu-related deaths that occur are in people over the age of 65. Over half of the people that have to be hospitalized because of the flu are also in this age group.


Pneumonia is one of the most common and most serious flu complications and is also one of the top ten leading causes of death among the elderly. Pneumonia can quickly become severe in adults that can’t fight it off. Pneumonia causes a fluid buildup in the lungs, reducing oxygen supply to the lungs and other tissues in the body.

It is important to know the signs of pneumonia if your elder loved one has the flu so that if they begin to develop it, you can catch it early. The signs of bacterial pneumonia were already described, but viral pneumonia has some different symptoms including:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • A dry cough that produces no phlegm or a cough that produces small amounts of white or clear phlegm
  • Muscle pain
  • Exhaustion

If you or your senior loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms with the flu, see your doctor immediately.

Further Complications of Influenza

Complications of the flu can worsen other chronic conditions including:

  • Asthma
  • Heart Disease
  • Emphysema
  • COPD
  • Diabetes

Complications of the flu may also cause your seniors to experience one of the following conditions:

  • Dehydration
  • Sinusitis
  • Ear infections
  • Bronchitis
  • Encephalitis
  • Death

For more information on the influenza virus and how to recognize the symptoms, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

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Frequently Asked Questions

My father has had a cough for sometime now. He insists it's just a cold, but we're worried it could be more. Could it be walking pneumonia?

Yes, it is possible that it could be walking pneumonia, but it could even just be a lingering symptom of a cold like your dad said. However, it is important to know when a cough is more than just a cough because it could actually be a more serious condition like the walking pneumonia you suggested, or chronic obtrusive pulmonary disease (COPD).

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What are some ways that seniors can boost their immune systems against colds and the flu?

The first way that seniors can prevent a cold or flu is by making sure that they receive their flu shot. Maintaining a healthy diet, and especially vitamin C, will also help to keep a senior's immune system in top-notch condition. Combine that with regular exercise to promote circulation and heart health, as well as a regular sleeping cycle and proper hydration and an elderly adult is well on their way to helping their body prevent illness.

Finally, one last word of advice. Seniors should always consult with their doctor before adding any new supplements or vitamins to their regimen.

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