A female Right at Home caregiver is helping a senior male client drink a glass of water while he is laying in bed A female Right at Home caregiver is helping a senior male client drink a glass of water while he is laying in bed

Preventing Respiratory Illness: Keeping Seniors Safe in Cold Weather

With winter on the way, respiratory tract infections (RTIs) will surely follow. As we hunker down indoors, viruses will circulate in the air we breathe and on the surfaces we touch. For older adults, the risk is real. October 22-28 is National Respiratory Care Week. In recognition, here is a guide for staying safe and healthy during the cold months and year-round.

Understanding Respiratory Tract Infections

RTIs come in two varieties: upper and lower. Upper RTIs affect the sinuses and throat. Many symptoms of these infections are also symptoms of the common cold, such as a sore throat, runny nose, and cough. Lower RTIs typically last longer and are more severe than upper RTIs. Lower RTIs include pneumonia, bronchitis and tuberculosis.

Seniors Are at Greater Risk of Respiratory Infection Complications

Although most of us have RTIs from time to time, seniors are especially vulnerable to them, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). The problems can be mild, like a sinus or ear infection, or more serious, like pneumonia.

The NIA states that people more at risk for complications are age 65 or older; have medical conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, heart disease, or congestive heart failure; had a stroke; or live in a nursing home or other long-term care facility.

Our respiratory tract declines as we age, causing reduced lung capacity and a weaker diaphragm, which makes it harder to breathe in and out. Seniors with preexisting conditions need to be extra careful to avoid the viruses that cause infection.

Symptoms of Respiratory Tract Infections

According to the NIA, these symptoms could indicate a respiratory tract infection:

  • Cough with mucus
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Elevated temperature

Most RTIs will run their course and can be treated with over-the-counter medications, including ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin for fever and sore throat pain, decongestants for coughs and sinus problems, and suppressants for controlling coughs. However, extra monitoring is necessary for seniors with preexisting conditions who catch a virus, and a call to the doctor is a good idea. The doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication or treatments that can help prevent acute illness after exposure to a virus.

When To Go to the Emergency Room

According to the Cleveland Clinic, go to the nearest ER or seek immediate medical attention if you or a loved one has signs of a serious infection, including:

  • High fever (103 degrees Fahrenheit/39.4 degrees Celsius)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Severe stomach (abdominal) pain
  • Confusion or other mental changes

How To Lower Respiratory Infection Risk

Although coming in contact with viruses can’t be avoided entirely, the following steps lower RTI risk for older adults:

  • Staying up to date on flu, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus vaccines
  • Limiting gatherings in crowded spaces
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Staying hydrated
  • Eating healthy foods
  • Exercising
  • Washing hands often
  • Avoiding touching the mouth, nose and eyes after being around others who are sick

How Right at Home Can Help

Right at Home’s professional in-home caregivers can help seniors who have contracted a respiratory infection. Some help around the house, general light housekeeping, and help with meals can genuinely make a difference in a speedy recovery. Use our office locator to find the location nearest you and ask for a FREE in-home consultation.

Marsha Johns, blog author

Marsha Johns is a veteran health care marketer and award-winning writer. She strives to make medical topics understandable and relatable for all readers.

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