Symptoms of a Cold in the Elderly

With 200 different types of cold in existence, it is estimated that there are at least 20 million colds being circulated every year in London alone. Both illnesses are therefore to be taken seriously, especially in elderly people: however, the latter is especially dangerous.

How dangerous is flu?

While most of us are aware that the flu can be potentially life-threatening, few of us realise just how big that risk is among older people. In 2016, flu was responsible for the loss of thousands of lives, with the rise in excess deaths last winter being attributed to a “predominant strain of flu prevalent during the 2016 to 2017 winter, which had greater impact on the elderly than the young”, according to the Office of National Statistics.

The flu, which is medically known as influenza, is estimated to cause an average of 600 deaths per year in the UK through complications. It is therefore vital that individuals are able to recognise the symptoms, take preventative measures and act quickly when they think someone may be suffering, especially those in high risk groups, such as the elderly.

the difference between a cold and the flu in elderly people

One of the reasons that the flu is so dangerous is that many people often fail to recognise it. Therefore, its symptoms aren’t always taken as seriously as they should be. This can be hard when we are suffering from it ourselves, but it can be even more challenging if we’re looking out for symptoms in other people.

However, considering the difference in severity between flu and the common cold – although we would like to highlight that there are still risks related to a cold – it is important to know the distinctions between the two. This is because not only are the levels of risk different, but so too are the ways in which you should respond accordingly. One of the issues in recognising the onset of influenza is that some symptoms are very similar to that of a cold, meaning that people can often end up mistaking one for the other.

signs and symptoms of a cold in elderly

For example, people suffering from both the flu and a cold can experience aches: although they do tend to be a lot more noticeable with the flu, while they are usually only slight with a cold. A fever during a cold is possible but uncommon, whereas with the flu, this is very likely. So, a fever would be a solid indication that flu is present.

Similarly, fatigue and weakness can come with a cold, especially as this is something often felt by elderly people but with flu, it would be much more pronounced. The same can be said for both chest discomfort and headaches. In these instances, the key is the severity of the symptoms, and this can be hard to judge if you are not experiencing the sensations yourself but rather determining their seriousness in someone you are caring for. The best way forward is often good communication.

Common symptoms of a cold, such as sneezing, a stuffy nose and a sore throat, are possible but less likely to occur with the flu. You can often determine the difference between a flu or a cold by examining a set of symptoms, rather than just one. A helpful, if unpleasant, way of telling if someone has flu is via chills. While possible with a cold, this symptom is far more likely and far more pronounced with the flu. Another way of recognising the presence of flu is by how rapid the onset of symptoms is, which happens more suddenly with the flu than with a cold.

How to respond if you think someone has a cold or flu

First off, if you are unsure of whether someone you care for is suffering with the flu or a cold, it is recommended that you consult a doctor to be safe. Although being aware of the symptoms is important, it’s always best to leave things to medical professionals, rather than going with your best guess.

The advice from the NHS regarding the common cold suggests to see your GP if symptoms get worse suddenly, if they persist for longer than three weeks, if the sufferer is having breathing difficulties or if there are any other complications, such as chest pain or coughing up bloody mucus. However, if there’s a long-term illness which may be affected by a cold, or you are concerned for any other reason, it’s still best to see a GP. In the case of the flu, the NHS advises you always go to the GP or at least call 111 if you are 65 years old or over.

Remember that prevention is always better than the cure, so you should make sure that any elderly individuals in your care are up to date with their flu vaccine. With cold weather leading to a rise in the prevalence of flu, it is recommended that the vaccine is taken from the beginning of October to the end of November, but they can still be administered later into winter. The NHS offers free flu vaccines to anyone over the age of 65 and these can be taken at a GP surgery or a local pharmacy.