Flu Season 2013-2014: Five Things Older Adults Should Do

Last year’s flu season was worse than most, with numerous cases of severe illness. What will this year bring? What should seniors and their families do to protect themselves from the flu and its complications? Here are five steps to take:

1. Learn your risk of complications.

Many people believe that the flu is just an inconvenience. Those people have most likely never experienced the flu, but instead a milder illness, such as a cold! Seasonal influenza brings days of misery for people of any age. For seniors, the flu also can cause serious complications, such as pneumonia and other infections, sometimes leading to disability, loss of independence … even death. According to the National Council on Aging, nine out of 10 flu-related deaths occur in people 65 and older.

Why are seniors at higher risk? Older adults are most likely to have medical conditions such as diabetes, stroke, and diseases of the heart, lungs and kidneys, all of which raise the risk of complications. Even seniors who are in otherwise good health can be at risk, because the immune system weakens as we grow older. Some of the medications seniors take also may raise the risk.

A case of the flu can have long-lasting impact on a senior’s life. Explains Dr. Andrew Duxbury of the Comprehensive Center for Healthy Aging at the University of Alabama, "When older people get the flu, they are more likely to get other infections, such as pneumonia. Just being knocked into bed for as little as three or four days can, in a very frail older person, make it so they lose the ability to walk and do for themselves. It can cause a spiral in disabilities and increases the chance of falls and injuries."

Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk of flu complications.

2. Get a flu shot every year.

Being vaccinated is the No. 1 way to protect against the viruses that cause the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that this year’s vaccine will protect against the three — in some cases, four — most common projected strains of the flu. Everyone six months of age and older should be vaccinated annually. There are several types of vaccine; a special, higher-dose shot is often recommended for people older than 65.

When should you get your vaccine? The timing of flu season is unpredictable. Flu season might begin as early as October and can continue through May. The CDC says that getting the vaccine as soon as it is available each year is always a good idea; the protection you get will last throughout the season.

Remember: Medicare covers an annual flu shot; there is no charge if the vaccine is administered by a recognized provider, and a beneficiary does not have to meet the deductible to receive this benefit.

Talk to your healthcare provider about the type of flu vaccine that is right for you.

3. Avoid spreading the flu.

The flu vaccine is the first line of defense against seasonal flu. But it’s not foolproof. The vaccine’s effectiveness varies from year to year, and older people may be less protected because their immune systems don’t respond as effectively. So, even if they have received their annual immunization, seniors and families should take the following precautions to avoid the spread of flu viruses and other infectious diseases:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Alcohol-based rubs aren’t as effective, but are an approved substitute when water is unavailable.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick, and if you do get the flu, stay home. People infected with the flu can continue to infect others for up to a week. If you notice influenza symptoms, avoid contact with others except to seek medical care.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue if you cough or sneeze.

Talk to your doctor about lifestyle choices that keep you healthy and promote a healthy immune system.

4. Protect your senior friends and loved ones.

Healthcare workers, family caregivers and other people who come into contact with seniors and people with chronic health conditions need to be vaccinated. The fewer infected people seniors come into contact with, the better! Dr. Duxbury also reminds caregivers that if the flu strikes them, they will be too sick — and contagious — to take care of their loved one. Duxbury recommends that even caregivers who are vaccinated should discuss contingency plans for their loved one’s care, just in case the flu strikes. "Now is a good time for caregivers to create a Plan B," he says.

Talk to your doctor if you are a family caregiver and come down with the flu.

5. Know what to do if a senior gets the flu.

The CDC recommends that people older than 65 should seek medical treatment if they develop flu symptoms. Symptoms might include fever, extreme tiredness, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and muscle aches — though seniors sometimes do not develop a fever, making self-diagnosis more difficult. Care and treatment may include …

Taking antiviral medications. The CDC recommends that people who exhibit signs of the flu and who are at high risk for complications be treated immediately with flu antiviral medications. These prescription drugs can reduce the severity of the disease. If a person is showing signs that might mean the flu, it is advised that they receive antiviral drugs even if they have received the flu vaccine. These drugs are most effective if taken within the first two days that symptoms are evident.

Drinking plenty of water and other nonalcoholic fluids. Dr. Duxbury cautions, "Appetite and thirst mechanisms are different for older people; they can tip over to dehydration in less than a day if they don’t keep fluids up."

Getting plenty of rest … but not too much. Take it easy and get plenty of sleep — but don’t spend the whole day in bed. Says Duxbury, "Older people need to get out of bed at least a minimal amount and sit up. It’s better for lungs and helps avoid pneumonia."

Be alert for warning signs that signal the need for urgent medical care:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen.
  • Sudden dizziness.
  • Confusion.
  • Severe or persistent vomiting.

Talk to a healthcare provider right away if any of these symptoms are present.

Locate Your Flu Vaccine and Learn More About Flu Season 2013-14

Flu.gov, the federal government's flu information portal, includes information about flu and older adults, the latest on this year’s vaccine, and an interactive vaccine finder.  

The National Council on Aging’s Flu + You campaign offers information and resources specifically tailored for people age 65 and older and their caregivers. Visit the Flu + You site for a flu vaccine finder and to watch an entertaining public service announcement starring "The Six Million Dollar Man," Lee Majors.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Speak to your healthcare provider if you have questions about influenza or the flu vaccine.

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