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How to avoid the flu and its complications in seniors

written by Vidya Sury October 8, 2019
How to avoid the flu and its complications in seniors

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This post is about how to avoid the flu in seniors, prevent serious flu complications in seniors, how to recognize flu symptoms and tips for preventing the flu.

Flu season is around the corner and it is important to take steps to avoid the flu, especially in seniors. The season brings with it the responsibility to ensure that we are take good care of ourselves to prevent it. As we grow older, our immune system becomes weaker. Influenza or the flu can be a serious illness, particularly for older adults, especially those 65 years and older and their caregivers, who are under stress and are at higher risk for the flu and its complications.

Statistics show that 70-85% seasonal flu related deaths in the US is among people 65 years and older, and they also account for 50-70% of flu-related hospitalizations.

While we cannot avoid the realities of aging, an awareness of various strategies to prevent the flu is important for the elderly. Most people may not need to seek medical care when they have the flu, but for those over 65, the flu can result in hospitalization and serious health complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections.

The CDC reports that the flu can also make existing chronic health issues like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, kidney/liver problems, COPD and other conditions treated with steroids and chemotherapy much worse. Seniors who have the flu can develop pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections, dehydration (resulting in kidney problems, seizures and other complications), and heart failure.

This flu season, how can seniors stay safe and healthy?

Flu cost the US more than $87 Billion annually. Between 2010 and 2016, 12,000 to 56,000 people died every year because of the flu, and many of them were people over the age of 65.

The first step to preventing flu complications is learning to recognize flu symptoms.

If any of the following symptoms are experienced, it’s important to see the doctor right away.

  • Fever/chills (101 F in the elderly)
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Chest pain
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body ache or headache
  • Breathlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions

The sooner the medication is started, preferably within 48 hours after symptoms begin, the faster the recovery.

Fortunately, the flu can be prevented with vaccines and other measures.

By following some simple preventive steps, it is possible to avoid the flu and stay healthy through flu season.

Preventive steps to avoid the flu this flu season

  1. Get the Flu vaccine

Avoid the flu get your flu shot

Number one on the list is the flu vaccine. An annual flu vaccine is the best option to minimize the risk of flu and its complications that can result in hospitalization or even prove fatal for older people. Although some people can get sick in spite of the vaccination, flu vaccine reduces the severity of illness.

A 2017 study showed that flu vaccination resulted in fewer deaths, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, ICU length of stay, and overall duration of hospitalization among hospitalized flu patients—the greatest benefits being among people 65 years of age and older.

Flu vaccines are regularly updated each season for maximum protection against changing viruses. The right time to get a seasonal flu vaccine is by the end of October, but this can continue throughout flu season, until January or even later when flu viruses are still in the air.

What types of flu shots are available for people 65 and older?

Besides the regular flu shots approved for this age group, there are two vaccines especially for people 65 and older to avoid the flu. They are:

  • High Dose Flu Vaccine – which has four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot, linked to a stronger immune response after vaccination. This vaccine has 24% fewer flu infections compared to the standard flu vaccine and a lower risk of hospital admissions compared with standard-dose Fluzone for people aged 65 years or older, especially those living in long-term care facilities.
  • Adjuvanted flu vaccine, Fluad – made with MF59 adjuvant which creates a stronger immune response to vaccination, Fluad improves immune response to vaccination. A Canadian observational study found that Fluad was 63% more effective than regular dose flu shots in people 65 years and older.

People 65 years and older must also receive the pneumococcal vaccination to protect against pneumonia, meningitis and bloodstream infections as these are serious flu related complications that can be fatal.

  1. Medication

It is important to remember that people 65 and older must be treated with influenza antiviral drugs prescribed by their doctor in case they do get sick with flu, as antibiotics often pose special risks to older patients, including tendon problems, nerve damage and mental health issues.

Antiviral drugs can prevent serious health problems that can result from flu illness. Tell your doctor about what medications you are taking for other conditions, if any, so that the right medication and dosage can be prescribed.

  1. Avoid contact with sick people

Another easy way to avoid the flu and stay safe is avoiding contact with sick people. Allow them to recover before meeting them. This applies to you if you’re sick too. Stay home and rest to avoid spreading the germs and recover. If being around a sick person cannot be avoided, limit contact and touch such as shaking hands and hugging.

  1. Thorough handwashing /sanitizing

Avoid the flu. Handwashing

Germs are a part of life and while we can’t do anything about being exposed to them, we can definitely protect ourselves by washing our hands regularly with antibacterial soap, especially before touching food or your face since this is the easiest way to allow the germs to enter the body and make you sick. Frequent handwashing with regular soap can get rid of cold and flu germs and help avoid the flu. Carry a hand sanitizer for situations when soap and water are unavailable.

  1. Healthy lifestyle choices

This might seem obvious, but it is an important strategy in flu prevention. Healthy lifestyle choices include regular exercise, avoiding smoking, healthy diet, managing stress and adequate sleep to make sure the immune system stays strong.  Even moderate exercise strengthens the immune system, reducing the risk of a cold.

  1. Keeping surroundings clean

Again, this is a given. But extra care must be taken to keep the bathroom and kitchen clean. Use disinfectant especially on germ hotspots such as door knobs, light switches, kitchen and bathroom counters. Once done, cleaning sponges and rags must be cleaned as well.

  1. Sanitize mobile devices

Keep your mobile devices, laptop keyboards and other frequently used electronics sanitized. These can be a breeding place for germs. Wipe them down with rubbing alcohol.

  1. Skip travel and crowds

If you can, avoid crowded areas and travel. These increase the chances of catching an infection, particularly in closed spaces with poor ventilation.

  1. Stay hydrated

Stay hydrated to Avoid the flu

Drink plenty of liquids to keep the nasal passages moist and trap those germs before they can spread inside the body.

  1. Pay special attention to nutrition

Check with your doctor about taking safe Vitamin C supplements to improve immunity. Make sure you add the right amount of protein to your diet, as inadequate protein can lower your immune response.

If you do fall sick with flu symptoms, what can you do?

Sometimes, in spite of precautions to avoid the flu, people can still get sick. Here’s what you can do to prevent flu complications and feel better.

  • As soon as you notice flu symptoms, see your doctor right away for prescription antiviral medication to protect from serious flu complication and avoid hospitalization. Preferably, medication must be started within two days.
  • Rest as much as you can as you can be contagious for up to 5 days or more once diagnosis is confirmed. While coughing or sneezing, use a tissue and destroy it. Sanitize/wash hands thoroughly.
  • Keep airways moist to soothe sore throats and relieve the pain of coughing. Use a humidifier if necessary.
  • Consume warm liquids. The steam can clear the nasal passage and mucus and soothe the throat.
  • When you rest, recline at an angle to avoid mucus gathering in the sinus cavities and making the infection worse. Resting at an angle can also relieve inflammation.

While it is possible to recover from colds and the flu without medical intervention, it is important to recognize the symptoms and be aware that it can turn into an emergency. When that happens, get emergency care.

How to avoid the flu and its complications in seniors

This post is sponsored by CureClick

CureClick is committed to supporting patients, caregivers, patient advocates and life science companies through education about health, science and clinical trials.

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Leana Lourens October 10, 2019 at 12:01 am

Hi there Vidya. It’s sad that so many elderly people get sick and sometimes the flu hits them hard. You have listed things to keep in mind to help prevent getting the flu, however what I find funny, Is that elser peole are tpo stubborn to do what can be very beneficial to them?

Raina Camille October 10, 2019 at 9:05 am

Great tips! I used to work in group homes and flu is one of the reasons we often visit the emergency rooms. The elderly do often get complications from the flu and it’s sad they sometimes lose their lives. I agree with Leana, these people can be stubborn.

Karmen October 10, 2019 at 11:01 am

My grandma and grandpa always fight about this ? She is overreacting about every disease so of course she always gets her flu shots, and that is a good thing since she is 75 years old. But my grandpa on the other hand is a stubborn 85 year old man that thinks no disease can touch him, so of course he doesn’t go for the flu shots. All I can say is: men, they never listen or learn ?

Julie October 10, 2019 at 11:46 am

The elderly certainly do take longer to recover from being ill so having preventative measures in place can only be beenficial. Anything we can do to help our grandparents live longer is something worth trying

Tina Barnes October 10, 2019 at 7:36 pm

These are great tips for anyone in general but especially the elderly since they are at a higher risk. I think it’s important for the elderly to take as many preventative measures as possible. It is super important that they do during the flu season.

Vicki Patton October 11, 2019 at 4:39 am

I help my husband take care of his grandfather and I am always reminding him that he has to take extra precautions because he is older. He listens a bit but is still mostly stubborn. These are some good tips to follow.

Heather | Embracing Chaos with Love October 11, 2019 at 6:48 am

Hi Vidya,
Great reminder for this time of year. It reminded me I need to make an appt for my kids to get their flu vaccine. I did not realize there were antiviral medications available for seniors that do end up getting the flu. That is good information to know. Thanks for the post and great info for remedies as well as preventive measures that can be taken.

Nicole Steyn October 11, 2019 at 1:36 pm

We had a terrible flu here this year. I struggled for 2 full weeks and my poor Granny who is 93 took a full month to recover. And she gets her flu vaccine every year without fail. These are great tips to remember before flu season!

Best Natural Remedy For Flu | Kaboutjie October 12, 2019 at 6:57 pm

[…] and look after your health so that your immune system is at it’s best, this is especially important for seniors and those that are […]

Lynne Huysamen October 12, 2019 at 7:03 pm

Ok so I am not a senior citizen but I am only now recovering from the worst flu I have ever had in my life. It is incredible how bad this flu is getting. I could barely stand I was so weak and dizzy and after 11 days I was diagnosed with Bronchitis and went on antibiotics which I really detest doing. One of the things I really noticed this time was how dehydrated I became. I craved liquids. If I am hit so hard at the age of 40 I can only imagine how rough it must be for seniors now to get this flu! Thank you for these fab tips for seniors, I may not be a senior but I am certainly going to follow them anyway to try and keep myself fit and healthy to avoid this in future.


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