Flu season can be deadly for seniors: Tips for survival
Carol Sulis, M.D.
We are in the midst of the flu season. And if this year is typical, 20 percent of Americans will come down with influenza, or as it’s commonly known, the flu.
Seniors are particularly vulnerable. Many seniors have chronic health conditions that can weaken their immune systems, and this can make it particularly tough for them to fight off the flu. In fact, of the 36,000 people who die each year from the flu or flu-related illnesses, more than 90 percent are 65 years old or older.
Every senior should take the threat posed by the flu seriously, and take action to prevent getting sick. The flu vaccine is the best protection for seniors, and everyone over 65 should get a shot every flu season.
While the vaccine doesn’t guarantee that the recipient won’t get the flu, it dramatically reduces the chances. Medicare will pay for seniors to receive a flu shot every season (up to two shots per year — one in the winter or spring, and another at the beginning of the next flu season the following autumn).
Although the flu shot is the primary defense, there are a number of additional steps that seniors can take to stay healthy. Seniors should:
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick because influenza is extremely contagious. As tempting as it can be to visit sick friends, seniors should avoid doing so until the patient recovers.
• Wash their hands often to help protect themselves from germs. Flu germs can be passed along through a simple handshake, or they can be picked up from doorknobs or anything else that is handled by one or more sick people.
• Avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are most easily spread when a person touches something that is contaminated and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
• Limit the amount of time spent in places where they are more likely to run into people who are sick, such as senior centers, public libraries, hospitals or nursing homes.
• Check with their doctor to make sure that they have also received a pneumonia shot (pneumococcal vaccine), in addition to a flu shot.
Of course sometimes it is impossible to avoid getting sick, even if all of these precautions are taken. Seniors who feel ill and are worried that they may have the flu shouldn’t panic. The first thing they should do is check their symptoms; the flu can cause fever, chills, headache, dry cough, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat and muscle aches. Unlike the common cold, influenza can cause extreme fatigue lasting several days to more than a week.
Seniors with one or more of these symptoms should call their doctor right away. Influenza can be dangerous for seniors, and can lead to a number of potentially deadly illnesses, including pneumonia. Delays in getting treated can have severe consequences.
There are a number of things that seniors with the flu can do to speed up their recovery:
• Get a lot of rest — the best way to beat the flu is to build up the body’s natural defenses by resting.
• Drink plenty of liquids — when seniors are dehydrated, their bodies have a harder time fighting off the flu. However, seniors with heart or kidney ailments may need to limit their fluids, so they should consult their doctors before upping their intake of liquids.
• Avoid using alcohol and tobacco.
• Seniors may benefit from taking medication to relieve their flu symptoms. While these medications won’t cure the flu itself, they can help seniors feel more comfortable. However, it is essential for seniors to consult their doctor before taking over-the-counter medications, because they can have severe — and potentially deadly — interactions with prescription drugs.
Finally, a doctor may also prescribe an antiviral drug to help shorten the length of an illness. Because the flu is caused by a virus, antibiotics don’t work to cure it. However, antivirals can sometimes help seniors get back on their feet more quickly.
Prevention is the best medicine for seniors. Anyone 65 years or older should get a flu shot every year, in addition to a pneumonia vaccine. It’s not too late to get these shots because the flu season lasts well into May. In addition to getting a flu shot, seniors should also avoid people who are sick, and they should stay away from places where they are likely to be exposed to the flu and people who may have it.
The flu can be dangerous — even deadly — for seniors. But those who follow these simple prevention and recovery steps can improve their chances of staying healthy throughout the flu season.
Carol Sulis, M.D. is an epidemiologist at Radius Specialty Hospital. She is also chair of the hospital’s Infection Control Committee. For information consult: flu.masspro.org and www.mass.gov/dph/cdc/epii/flu/