Older Adults, Help Your Immune System Fight Colds and Flu

Do you get sick more often than when you were younger? When you do, does it take you longer to get better? That’s because your immune system -- your body’s defense against germs -- tends to get weaker with age.

Experts aren’t sure why it happens. But scientists know older adults tend to make less of the white blood cells that attack new germs, and the ones they do make don’t work as well. This slows down the production of antibodies -- immune proteins that help you kill specific germs.

On the flip side, body-wide inflammation tends to go up with age. That’s when immune cells collect and float around in your cells. After a while, this takes a toll on your tissue and organs. Scientists call that “inflamm-aging.”

The result: You have a harder time fighting infections -- like cold and flu. You might not respond as well to vaccines, either. This is especially true if you’re over 65.

You can’t slow down time, but you can support your immune system along the way.

Fuel Your Body

About a third of people over 50 don't get all the nutrients they need each day. You might need fewer calories as you get older, but you still need a healthy mix of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to power your immune system. The problem is as you age, your gut has a harder time absorbing all this good stuff. 

Here’s how you can give your body what it needs.

Eat Healthy

Poor diet choices can lead to inflammation and weight gain. Both can work against your immune system. So fill your plate with nutrient-rich foods to make sure your immune system gets everything it needs to protect you.

Make sure you work in:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains (like brown rice and oatmeal)
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fish
  • Tofu
  • Probiotics (a form of gut bacteria that you can find in things like plain yogurt, fermented vegetables, and sauerkraut)
  • Milk or fortified nondairy products like almond or soy milk

Try to stay away from:

  • Ultra-processed foods like chips or cookies
  • Anything with a lot of added sugar
  • Refined grains like white bread and white rice
  • Red meat
  • Processed meats such as sausage, bacon, or cold cuts

Ask About Supplements

It's best to get your nutrients from food. But that’s not always easy, especially if you’re not as hungry as you used to be. There’s no evidence that any supplement will supercharge your immune system. But they can help fill in some dietary gaps.

Always talk to your doctor about which vitamin supplements might be right for you. They might suggest:

  • A daily multivitamin
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D

Make sure to tell your doctor about any medications you're taking. Some supplements might change how your drugs work.

Unless your doctor tells you to, never take more than the recommended daily allowance of any supplement. High doses of certain vitamins and minerals can do more harm than good. And remember that the government doesn't regulate supplements in the same way it regulates medication. That means you might not get exactly what's on the label.


All of your cells -- including those in your immune system -- need water to work well. But your body's makeup changes as you get older, and the amount of water in it goes down. Your sense of thirst also decreases with age. So you may not know that you need fluids. Older people are more likely to end up in the hospital from dehydration.

There are signs that can tell you that you need more water, like:

  • Dry mouth
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle cramps

Everyone's water needs are different. You might need more or less than the old “8 ounces a day” rule. You want to drink enough liquid that your pee isn't too dark. It should look kind of like lemonade or weak apple juice.

It's OK to take small sips of your water throughout the day. You can also hydrate with fruit and vegetables, like watermelon, strawberries, or zucchini.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Obesity can help cause immune problems. That’s partly because fat tissue sends out chemicals that can lead to inflammation. But it’s not good to be underweight -- or undernourished -- either.

Your doctor can help you get to your proper weight. They might send you to a registered dietitian -- an expert who’ll help you find a food plan that works for you.

Get Moving

You probably already know exercise is good for your overall health. But studies show regular physical activity can also support an aging immune system.

You should start slow and work up to 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. You can reach that goal with 30 minutes of activity, 5 days a week. You can try:

  • Brisk walking
  • Water aerobics
  • Riding a bike
  • Pushing a lawn mower
  • Dancing

You lose muscle mass as you age, so it’s important to add in 2 or more days of strength training each week. You can:

  • Lift weights
  • Do pushups
  • Dig in your garden.

Talk to your doctor about what exercise is safe for you, especially if you have a health condition that makes it hard to get around. It’s important to get in as much daily movement as your body allows. Any physical activity is better than none.

Guard Against Germs

Wash Your Hands Often

Do it for at least 20 seconds each time you do. It might seem simple, but using plain soap and water is one of the best ways to get rid of germs. If those aren’t around, you can use a hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol. Use enough that your entire hands stay wet.

When you wash your hands:

  • Wet your hands with running water, warm or cold.
  • Turn the tap off and add soap.
  • Scrub the front and back of your hands, including between your fingers and under your nails
  • While you wash, sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. That’s about 20 seconds.
  • Rinse off the soap and dry your hands completely. Use a clean towel, or let them air dry.

Always wash your hands:

  • Before, during, and after you prepare food
  • Before you eat
  • After you’ve been in public
  • After you go to the bathroom
  • After you touch a surface that other people have touched
  • After you blow your nose or sneeze
  • After you’ve been around sick people

Disinfect the Right Way

You might not know it, but household cleaners come with instructions. You’ll need to follow them to make sure you actually kill germs.

Here are two key tips:

Clean visibly dirty surfaces first. That’s when you physically remove germs from a surface. It helps disinfectants work because chemicals can’t break through a lot of gunk. You can use soap and water or another household cleaner.

Keep surfaces visibly wet. When you clean your high-use surfaces, wait a bit before you dry them off. Water helps the chemicals in disinfectants kill germs. That’s why the wetness needs to linger for a bit. That waiting period varies from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. It depends on which product you use. Read the label to find out.

Viruses can’t float into your home without a host. So if you or the people you live with don’t go out for long stretches, you only need to disinfect about once a week. If you go out more often and for longer periods of time, disinfecting each day might be your best bet.

Manage Your Stress

Your body sends out chemicals when you feel a mental or physical threat, whether it's a tiger in the woods or a deadline at work. It's healthy and natural, but only when it comes in short bursts. A constant stream of stress can weaken your immune system. That’ll lead to inflammation, hurt your organs, and make it harder for you fight infections.

Ongoing stress also seems to speed up the aging process, which slows down your immune system even more.

You can’t take it easy all the time, but it’s important to give yourself little breaks and find calm where you can. You can try:

Meditation. There are a lot of ways to meditate. You can learn some with an app or an in-person teacher. Certain methods, like focusing on your breathing or repeating a phrase, can ease your “fight or flight” response. Over time, that might help protect you against stress as you age.

Mindfulness. This is when you focus on the present without judging yourself. It’s a type of meditation, but it’s also a kind of therapy. There’s evidence that mindfulness can help keep you from worrying about something over and over again.

Yoga. These physical poses and controlled breathing help your body slow down. They can also lower your blood pressure and your heart rate. Yoga might ease your depression and anxiety while boosting your self-esteem. You can take classes or use online videos to learn the techniques.

Reaching out. Whether online or in person, stay in touch with your friends, family, pastor, or find a support group. Studies show social links -- and the belief that you can count on others -- can ease the effects of stress. If you’re older, strong connections might be important for both your physical and mental health.

Talk to your doctor. Depression, anxiety, and other health conditions can make stress hard to handle by yourself. It’s OK to turn to a trained professional. Medication or talk therapy might help you feel better.  Your doctor can help you find the solution that works best for you.

Quick Stress Fixes
Quick Stress Fixes
Quick Stress Fixes

Rest Up

Your immune system works better when you give yourself some downtime. That’s probably why you get tired when you don’t feel well. Sleep also helps your body respond better to vaccines and eases inflammation.

So how much do you need? And how can you tell if it’s “good” sleep?

Adults need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of shut-eye each night. But it’s natural for your sleep habits to change as you age. You might get up earlier or sleep a little less. That’s not something you should worry about if you’re not tired during the day.

In general, older people have more trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Experts aren’t sure why, but they do know you tend to spend less time in deep sleep as you age. 

Signs you’re not sleeping well include: 

  • Daytime sleepiness or naps 
  • Concentration or mood problems
  • Memory trouble
  • More infections

Here are some tips on how to get more ZZZs: 

Set a routine. Try to get up at the same time every day, even if you went to bed late the night before. Create habits when you go to bed -- brush your teeth, wash your face, put on pajamas -- to send a signal that it’s time for sleep.

Don’t nap. You’ll have more trouble falling asleep at night if you doze off during the day. 

Skip your afternoon coffee. Limit or avoid caffeine after 2 p.m. 

Avoid alcohol before bed. A drink might help you fall asleep, but alcohol makes it harder to get restful sleep. 

Don't sweat too late. Exercise at least 2-3 hours before you go to bed. That way, your body has time to cool off before bed.

Ditch screens an hour before bed. The blue light from your TV, smartphone, or laptop can confuse your brain. It sends a signal that it’s still daytime. That curbs the release of melatonin, a chemical that tells your body it’s time to sleep. And you already make less melatonin as you age.

Try different lightbulbs. Light with a reddish tint is better for sleep. Dimmer lightbulbs might also help.  

Use your bedroom for sleep. Try not to work or watch TV in bed.

Go to bed when you’re tired. If you’re still awake 20 minutes after you shut your eyes, get up. Do something relaxing -- read a book, meditate -- until you’re sleepy. 

Talk to your doctor if you have good sleep habits, but you still can’t snooze. You might need to treat a hidden health problem. Some conditions that might affect your sleep include:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease 
  • A pain condition, like arthritis
  • Neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s

Some drugs can cause sleep problems, too. Ask your doctor if you need to change your medicine. 

If none of that helps, you might need to:

  • See a sleep specialist
  • Take short-term sleep medicine
  • Try cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia 

Get Vaccinated

Almost everyone older than 6 months should get a yearly flu vaccine.

The flu shot is a safe way to protect yourself from the virus, which also means you can’t spread it to others. Urge friends and family -- or anyone you’re around a lot -- to get their vaccinations, too.

A flu shot is even more important as you age. Older people are much more likely to get really sick from the flu. Most people who go to the hospital or die from flu-related problems are 65 or older.

The flu virus changes every year. Scientists make new vaccines to target the most common strains going around. But they aren’t perfect. But even if you do get the flu, the vaccine may lessen the chances you’ll have serious symptoms.

A lot of drug companies make vaccines. The government doesn’t recommend one over another. Your doctor will choose the best one for you.

If you’re 65 or older, your doctor will likely give you one of these flu shots:

High-dose flu vaccine: With four times the regular amount of antigen -- the inactive virus -- this vaccine can create a stronger response from your immune system.

Adjuvanted flu vaccine: This includes an additive called MF59. It also triggers a stronger immune response than the regular flu shot. Experts still wonder if it works better than the high-dose vaccine.

It usually takes 2-3 weeks after you get your vaccine for your body to build up the antibodies you need to combat the flu. It’s best to get your flu vaccine in September or October. You should still get a vaccine later in the flu season if you can’t get it in the fall. But if you get it earlier than the fall, your immunity might get weaker late in the season.

Tell your doctor if you’ve ever had Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS). If you have, they might not want you to get a flu shot.

Your doctor may also suggest that you get a pneumococcal vaccine. This’ll protect you from pneumonia, meningitis, and other bloodstream infections. Ask your doctor about it.

Limit Alcohol

Your immune system will probably be OK if you drink in moderation. That means one serving of alcohol a day for women and two for men.

But don’t drink alcohol too close to bedtime. It might help you fall asleep, but it can lower the quality of your sleep. Plus, you might wake up once the booze wears off.

It's hard to say how much alcohol is safe for anyone, but you're more likely to get sick if you're a heavy drinker. If you're female, that means more than seven drinks a week, or more than three in a day. For males, it's 14 drinks a week, or more than four in a day.

This kind of drinking hurts your immune cells and makes inflammation worse.

Too much alcohol can also:

  • Make it hard to absorb nutrients
  • Disrupt "good" gut bacteria
  • Hurt your liver
  • Cause ongoing sleep problems

What's 'a Drink'?

One drink is equal to:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of “hard liquor” (such as vodka, whiskey, or tequila)

Talk to your doctor if you think about alcohol a lot, or you've tried to cut back and you can't. You might have an alcohol use disorder. Treatment can help.

Quit Smoking

Chemicals in tobacco smoke hurt your immunity in a lot of ways. For starters, smoking damages your DNA and shuts down the white blood cells that help you fight off infections. It also throws your immune system out of balance. That can lead to inflammation that won't go away.

It's hard to stop smoking. But the more you try to quit, the more likely you are to give it up.

See Your Doctor Regularly

It's normal to get three to five colds a year. But check in with your doctor if you get pneumonia or a lot of skin and mouth infections. That could be a sign your immune system isn't working the right way.

Even if you feel fine, get a checkup at least once a year. That way, your doctor can keep an eye on your health and spot problems early. 

​Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD on August 5 2020​

Michael Angarone, DO, assistant professor of infectious diseases and medical education, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Heidi Zapata, MD, assistant professor of infectious diseases, Yale School of Medicine.

Erica Hartmann, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University.

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