The purpose of this study was to compare the sampling efficacy of rayon swabs and nylon flocked swabs, and of oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal specimens for the detection of respiratory viruses in elderly patients. Samples were obtained from patients 60 years of age or above who were newly admitted to Sorlandet Hospital Arendal, Norway. The patients were interviewed for current symptoms of a respiratory tract infection. Using rayon swabs and nylon flocked swabs, comparable sets of mucosal samples were harvested from the nasopharynx and the oropharynx. The samples were analysed using real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods. A total of 223 patients (mean age 74.9 years, standard deviation [SD] 9.0 years) were swabbed and a virus was recovered from 11% of the symptomatic patients. Regardless of the sampling site, a calculated 4.8 times higher viral load (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.3–17, p = 0.017) was obtained using the nylon flocked swabs as compared to the rayon swabs. Also, regardless of the type of swab, a calculated 19 times higher viral load was found in the samples from the nasopharynx as compared to the oropharynx (95% CI 5.4–67.4, p < 0.001). When swabbing for respiratory viruses in elderly patients, nasopharyngeal rather than oropharyngeal samples should be obtained. Nylon flocked swabs appear to be more efficient than rayon swabs.