Considering the current landscape of respiratory threats — COVID-19, RSV, the flu — it’s easy to shrug off the common cold with precisely that: a shrug. After all, a cold is familiar, predictable … common. But that doesn’t make it across-the-board harmless, especially for people over 60.
“The common cold may seem like an inconvenience, but seniors should be wary as it can be a gateway for other ailments to affect the body,” says Xinqi (Mike) Ren, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “For people 60 and older, whose immune systems may not fight off harmful pathogens as effectively, a seemingly simple cold can lead to pneumonia, a serious lung infection, among other respiratory illnesses.”
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And now that many people are no longer masking and socially distancing, the cold is more common than ever. The culprit? For adults who’ve been previously infected, it’s waning immunity, according to a report in Nature. Normally, exposure to a virus like the cold helps the body fight it off by building up antibodies. The last few years, however, have been anything but normal, and in the absence of that exposure, there’s been a decline in antibody levels.
But this much hasn’t changed: There’s still no cure for the common cold. There are, however, a few ways to hasten your recovery.
First thing’s first: Rule out COVID, RSV, and flu
Congestion, runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache — all symptoms of a cold. But these are also symptoms of COVID. And RSV. And the flu. How to know for sure whether you’ve got something that will run its course after a week or so (i.e., a cold) and not something more serious? Get tested.
“The common cold, RSV, influenza and COVID can all begin with symptoms that resemble each other, so there’s a fair amount of confusion about when to get tested for what,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Disease.
His recommendation for people 65 and over? Get tested at the first sign of symptoms. You can test yourself at home for COVID-19; your doctor can run a test for flu and RSV. “The three really bad viruses [influenza, RSV and the virus that causes COVID-19] can produce serious disease in people 65 and over, particularly those who have an underlying illness such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease.”
And the sooner you know what’s at the root of your symptoms, the sooner you can start your recovery. For instance, starting an antiviral such as Tamiflu within 48 hours after flu symptoms appear will help your body fight off the virus and reduce symptoms. The antiviral Paxlovid does the same for COVID sufferers who begin treatment within five days after symptoms kick in.
“Both of these drugs work in the same way, they work to reduce the chance that your illness will evolve and become more serious, requiring hospitalization,” Schaffner says. “That’s why testing is important.”
If a cold is to blame, health professions say these five things can help.
1. Drink up
Staying hydrated is always important — it affects the health of your cells — but it also plays a big role in kicking a cold. For one, it helps keep your mucous membranes moist, so they don’t get crusty and uncomfortable. But that’s not all.
“Drinking water helps fight off the illness by clearing pathogens from your respiratory system in the form of mucus,” Ren says. “Proper hydration works to regulate your body temperature and maintain healthy skin and mucous membrane integrity, which acts as a barrier to prevent viruses and bacteria from entering.” Your fluid intake may need to increase as your body continues to fight the cold, he adds.
Keep in mind: Booze is off-limits. Alcohol acts as a diuretic, leading to dehydration — the opposite of what your body needs to recover.
2. Consider over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen, plus acetaminophen, decongestants and antihistamines can all relieve cold symptoms. But they come with caveats for some adults. “NSAIDs should be used with caution in older adults as there can be adverse effects, including damage to the kidneys, stomach upset and ulceration, and worsening blood pressure,” Ren says.
Decongestants are also problematic for adults with high blood pressure, he adds. “[They] work to relieve nasal congestion by narrowing blood vessels in your nose, which reduces swelling and the sensation of congestion,” he says. “This narrowing effect, however, extends to other blood vessels in your body, which leads to higher blood pressure.”
To play it safe, talk to your doctor before taking any pain reliever.
3. Wash your hands often
Why all the fuss about hand washing? It’s the simplest — and arguably the single most important — way to stay healthy and avoid a cold to begin with.
Research shows that at least 50 percent of colds in adults are caused by rhinoviruses, which can survive up to two hours on your hands (and up to several days on other surfaces).
Throughout the day, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with regular soap and water — warm or cold, either gets the job done, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — for at least 20 seconds. And avoid touching your eyes or nose, all easy places for germs to enter your system.
4. Rest up
Research shows that people who regularly sleep six hours or less each night are four times more likely to get a cold than people who sleep seven or more hours a night. But what role does sleep play if you’re already stuffed up and sneezing? Your body will tell you.
It’s natural to feel fatigued, Schaffner says. “And, yes, you have to listen to that. But after your nap don’t stay in bed. Try to move around a little bit because that will make you feel better and it will also stimulate your immune system and help you get over your cold.”
5. See your doctor if symptoms don’t improve
You may have something more than a cold. “If you’re coughing up something yellow or have streaks of blood in your phlegm, call your doctor because you may have bronchitis or the beginning of pneumonia,” Schaffner says. Same goes if you’re having difficulty breathing.
Why are colds so common in the winter?
Conventional wisdom suggests it’s because we spend more time indoors during cold-weather months and, as a result, we’re in closer proximity to others, which gives the virus the perfect opportunity to spread.
But a new study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that the cold air itself may be to blame. Turns out, cold air damages the immune response occurring in the nose. In fact, reducing the temperature inside the nose by as little as nine degrees kills about 42 percent of virus- and bacteria-fighting cells in the nostrils, according to the study.
“It’s not the whole answer, but it may be a contributing one — and another reason to believe that some viruses are distinctly seasonal,” Schaffner says.