Colds and the Flu
The very young and the very old are at higher risk for upper respiratory tract infections and their associated complications.
Children. Young children are prone to colds and may have as many as 12 colds every year. Millions of cases of influenza develop in American children and adolescents each year.
Before the immune system matures, all infants are susceptible to upper respiratory infections, with a possible frequency of one cold every 1 - 2 months. Smaller nasal and sinus passages also make younger children more vulnerable to colds than older children and adults. Upper respiratory infections gradually diminish as children grow, until at school age their rate of such infections is about the same as an adult's. There is almost never cause for concern when a child has frequent colds, unless the colds become unusually severe or more frequent than usual.
The Elderly. The elderly have diminished cough and gag reflexes, and their immune systems are often weaker. They are therefore at greater risk for serious respiratory infections than the young and middle-aged adults.
Exposure to Smoke and Environmental Pollutants
The risk of respiratory infections is increased by exposure to cigarette smoke, which can injure airways and damage the cilia (tiny hair-like structures that help keep the airways clear). Toxic fumes, industrial smoke, and other air pollutants are also risk factors. Parental smoking increases the risk of respiratory infections in their children.
People with AIDS and other medical conditions that damage the immune system are extremely susceptible to serious infections.
Cancers, especially leukemia and Hodgkin's disease, put patients at risk. Patients who are on corticosteroid (steroid) treatments, chemotherapy, or other medications that suppress the immune system are also prone to infection.
People with diabetes are at a higher risk for the flu.
Certain genetic disorders predispose people to respiratory infections. They include sickle-cell disease, cystic fibrosis, and Kartagener syndrome (which results in malfunctioning cilia).
People under Stress
A number of studies suggest that stress increases one's susceptibility to a cold. Stress appears to increase the risk for a cold regardless of lifestyle or other health habits. And once a person catches a cold or flu, stress can make symptoms worse.
It is not clear why these events occur. Some experts believe that stress alters specific immune factors, which cause inflammation in the airways.
Colds and the flu occur predominantly in the winter. Flu season typically starts in October and lasts into mid March.
The reasons for this seasonal bias are not due to the cold itself, but to other factors. Certainly, the flu and colds are more likely to be transmitted in winter because people spend more time indoors and are exposed to higher concentrations of airborne viruses. Dry winter weather also dries up nasal passages, making them more susceptible to viruses. Some experts theorize that the high rates of viral infections in winter may be due to certain immune factors, which react to light and dark and affect a person's susceptibility to viruses.
Traveling in Trains, Buses, and Planes
Traveling in close contact with people, whether on trains, planes, or buses, can increase the risk for respiratory infections.
Day Care Centers
Children who attend day care may have an increased risk of colds. However, they may have lower cold rates in their first years of regular school. The colds they catch in day care, then, may bestow some immunity to future colds for a few years. By age 13, such protection has worn off. There is also some evidence that frequent colds in young children may help protect against future allergies and asthma.