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For seniors, the cold facts

Published On: May 02 2013 08:53:45 AM CDT
Elderly man with son

iStock / lisafx

By Jeffrey Bramnick, Pure Matters

Walk into an office when winter sets in and you're bound to hear a cacophony of coughs, sneezes and sniffles. Walk into a school and you're likely to hear even more hacking and nose-blowing.

Now, walk into the home of the average senior citizen. Notice how quiet it is? That's because senior citizens are less likely to catch a cold than the rest of us.

The reason is largely twofold, doctors say:

  • Most senior citizens don't spend a lot of time with large groups of people especially the very young, who often are infected with cold virus.
  • Although your immune system weakens slightly with age, you slowly build up resistance to some of the 200 catalogued rhinoviruses responsible for the misery of the common cold.

"A lot of people have the misconception that an older person is more susceptible to catching a cold, but it just isn't true," explains David W. Bentley, M.D., professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. While children can have an average of six to 10 colds a year, adults over age 60 often have fewer than one cold a year.

While you may be more likely to avoid a cold as a senior, doctors add this warning: You're at risk of becoming sicker and developing more complications if you do get one.

So experts like Gwendolyn Graddy-Dansby, M.D., a geriatrician, recommend you take steps to protect yourself. "Try not to get too close to someone with an obvious bad cold," she says, "and wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water."

Hand-washing, experts say, is the most important thing you can do to reduce your chances of catching a cold or other infection.

You can pick up a cold virus from a doorknob or table surface; "you don't have to kiss someone or have them cough in your face," says Dr. Bentley.

Monitor your cold. If you get "the chills," feel shaky or dizzy, have chest pain or have a hacking cough that produces yellow, green or brown phlegm, call your doctor, advises Dr. Bentley.

"If you begin to run a fever of 99 degrees and the next day it spikes to 102 degrees, make the call. Call sooner if you have a chronic illness, such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease or diabetes."

Adds Dr. Graddy-Dansby: "Senior citizens, especially those with chronic illness, run the risk of becoming dehydrated. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids and avoid caffeine. Caffeine can increase the risk of dehydration." And watch your diet: Senior citizens are especially susceptible to weight loss when they become ill.

Experts suggest you keep your home moist during the dry winter months. Keep your nasal passages damp with a plain saline spray found in most drugstores or by applying a small amount of petroleum jelly to the inside of your nose.

All steamed up

Steam can also help. Use a vaporizer, run a hot bath, or inhale the mist coming from boiling water in a tea kettle-but keep your face about two feet away from the kettle to avoid burns.

If you see your doctor, be careful about pressing for antibiotics, "Antibiotics are not used to treat colds, because they have no effect on viruses," says Dr. Bentley. "The great majority of time, they're not necessary. But your doctor might prescribe antibiotics if he suspects you have something besides a cold or you are at risk for developing a bacterial infection on top of your cold."

Doctors also make a distinction between a cold and the flu.

The flu is not just a "bad cold;" it is a far more serious illness that leads to thousands of deaths a year in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccinations against flu and pneumonia for those 50 and older, as well as younger people with chronic respiratory and heart disease.

As fall turns into winter, we'll all catch more colds. But did you ever wonder why?

The experts says it has nothing to do with cold weather; studies of scientists traveling to the Arctic proved that. But it is related to the time of year. Throughout winter, children assemble in schools, outdoor activities move indoors and we gather in large groups as the holidays arrive. This close contact during cold months, when we spend far more time inside with the windows closed, creates an environment for the spread of cold viruses.

"During this time of year, people are more apt to have close contact, kissing and hugging each other, shaking hands more frequently and sharing food," explains St. Louis University's David W. Bentley, M.D.

Once a virus is passed along from person to person, it runs its course until the season changes. When spring comes along, people generally have less close contact and spend less time indoors.



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