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?
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)
- Sore throat
- Chest pain
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body ache or headache
- 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
Get the Flu vaccine
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.
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.
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.
Thorough handwashing /sanitizing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Drink plenty of liquids to keep the nasal passages moist and trap those germs before they can spread inside the body.
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.
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