Getting the flu is never fun; however, adults age 65 and up are often impacted by the illness far worse than any other age group. As your body ages, your immune system begins to weaken, which puts you at a greater risk of developing serious, even life-threatening complications.
According to the CDC, around 50-70% of persons hospitalized for seasonal flu-related illnesses occur in persons aged 65 years and older. Further, between 70-90% of seasonal flu-related deaths also occur in that same age group. These statistics show just how serious the flu can be for individuals of retirement age.
What is the Flu?
The flu, also called influenza, is a common viral infection that easily spreads from person-to-person through airborne particles, saliva and skin-to-skin contact. Meaning, people should be wary during their daily routine as the influenza virus can spread through shared drinks and eating utensils, kissing, handshakes, contaminated doorknobs or grab bars, and more. You can catch the flu by simply walking by an area where someone with the virus recently coughed or sneezed, which makes prevention a number one priority during flu season.
Influenza attacks the lungs, throat and nose. Some of the common, notoriously painful flu symptoms include:
- Muscle and body aches
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
- Cough (dry or with phlegm)
These symptoms can vary from mild-to-severe depending on the patient. Influenza can also be deadly, especially in high-risk groups such as children, pregnant women, people with a weakened immune system and adults over 65 years old.
Flu Prevention Tips
With over three million US cases of the flu reported each year, most individuals have experienced the flu at some point in their life, and in doing so, do not want to go through the aches and pains of it again. This is especially true for adults over 65 years of age who exist in a high-risk group for flu-related deaths. So, what can we do to avoid becoming sick with the flu?
Getting vaccinated is the best protection against the flu. The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age and older gets vaccinated against the flu by the end of October. Getting vaccinated later can still be beneficial if flu viruses are circulating, even past January. It’s particularly important that persons 65 and up receive a flu vaccination, because they are more likely to develop serious complications from the flu, such as pneumonia. Flu vaccines are updated each year to protect against the flu strains that are likely to be most common during the upcoming flu season.
The flu vaccine reduces flu illnesses and the more serious complications that can result leading to hospitalization or death. In a recent 2017 study, it was determined that flu vaccinations led to:
- Less overall duration of hospital stays
- Reduced intensive care unit admissions
- Reduced intensive care unit length of stays
- Reduced deaths
In this study, people over the age of 65 received the most benefits from the flu vaccine.
Types of Flu Shots
Adults over 65 years of age should get a flu shot rather than a nasal spray vaccine. Most flu vaccines are approved for people over 65 years of age to receive; meaning, the CDC affirms it is safe for any individual within that age group to receive it. Different types of flu vaccines include:
- Flu shot
- Intradermal Influenza Vaccine – approved for use in persons aged 18 to 64 years of age
- Cell-based Flu Vaccines – safe and effective for individuals four years of age and older
- Flu Vaccination by Jet Injector – recommended for individuals aged 18 through 64 years of age only
- Recombinant Influenza Vaccine – approved for use in adults 18 years of age and older
- Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine / Nasal Spray Vaccine – recommended for those between the ages of two through 49. Not recommended for adults 65 and up. Additionally, people with certain medical conditions shouldn’t receive the nasal spray flu vaccine.
- High-Dose Influenza Vaccine – has been licensed only for adults 65 years or older
- Quadrivalent Influenza Vaccine– different vaccines within this type are approved for different age groups
- Adjuvanted Vaccine – designed specifically for individuals aged 65 and older. Adjuvanted means an ingredient has been added to the vaccine that helps create a stronger immune response.
As you can see, different flu vaccines are approved for use with different age groups. Various factors determine an individual’s suitability for vaccination including age, health (past and present) and allergies to the flu vaccine or its components. Consult your doctor to determine what flu vaccination is best for you.
Most flu vaccines are cultured in egg. Individuals who have a history of severe egg allergy should only be vaccinated in a medical setting and supervised by medical personnel who can recognize and manage severe allergic reactions. If you are allergic to eggs or other possible components of vaccines, such as gelatin and antibiotics, be sure to let your doctor know before receiving a flu vaccination.
Individuals who have a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome should also let their doctors know before receiving a flu shot. Their history with GBS may affect their ability to receive flu shots.
Older adults should also be up-to-date with their pneumococcal vaccination to protect against pneumococcal diseases, such as pneumonia, bloodstream infections and meningitis. Pneumococcal pneumonia is one of the serious flu-related complications that can lead to death. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is recommended by the CDC for all adults aged 65 years and older and for those younger with certain medical conditions. The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine is recommended for all adults aged 65 years and older and for younger individuals with certain medical conditions or who smoke cigarettes.
Other Preventative Actions Against the Flu
In addition to receiving your flu shot annually, you should also:
- Live a healthy lifestyle year-round to keep your immune system strong – exercise regularly, don’t smoke, manage stress and eat a healthy diet
- Avoid crowds and unnecessary travel
- Wash your hands often with warm water and anti-bacterial soap, especially during flu season
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth– these are three routes by which germs are often introduced into our bodies
- Sneeze and cough into the crook of your arm (inner elbow) if a tissue is not available. If you can sneeze or cough into a tissue, dispose of the tissue immediately to stop the spread of germs.
- Avoid people who are sick, especially those who are coughing or sneezing
- Keep antibacterial hand gel handy. Use it when you can’t get to a sink to wash up.
- Sanitize your mobile devices with sanitizing wipes or rubbing alcohol, being careful not to get the electronics wet
- Keep your environment as germ-free as possible. Disinfect germ hot spots like doorknobs, light switches, grab bars, kitchen counters and bathroom counters. Disinfect cleaning sponges and cleaning rags by changing them out, soaking them in bleach, running them through the dishwasher or microwaving for 1 minute.
What to Do If You Get the Flu
What if you’ve done all you can to prevent the flu and get it anyway? Even if you get a flu vaccine, you can develop a strain of the flu that was not covered by the vaccine.
If you feel flu symptoms coming on, call your doctor immediately. Certain antiviral drugs can treat the flu and prevent its serious complications. Treatment should begin as soon as possible because antiviral drugs work best when started early (within 48 hours after symptoms begin).
Other things you can do to help your body combat the flu include:
- Drinking plenty of fluids (water, orange juice and chicken broth are great) to prevent dehydration and help your body eliminate the toxins and germs
- Getting plenty of rest
- Resting or sleeping at a 45-degree angle to prevent a buildup of mucus in the sinus cavities and to reduce inflammation
- Taking plenty of vitamin C
- Using a humidifier to soothe sore throats and hacking coughs
- Eating chicken soup – it opens nasal passages, soothes the throat and helps your body fight the flu
Influenza may lead to more serious complications, especially for those who are immuno-compromised. Here is a list of factors that increase a person’s chances of developing more serious complications from the flu:
- Chronic lung disease (such as COPD and cystic fibrosis)
- Heart disease (congestive heart failure, congenital heart disease and coronary artery disease)
- Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease)
- Neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions
- Liver, kidney or endocrine disorders
- Metabolic disorders
- Individuals with a BMI (body mass index) of 40 or higher
- Individuals with a weakened immune system (those with conditions such as cancer, HIV or AIDS; those receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer or individuals with conditions that require corticosteroids or other drugs that cause a suppressed immune system)
Most individuals who get the flu recover after as little as a few days or as long as two weeks; however, some people may develop severe and even life-threatening complications as a result of the flu. Serious complications from the flu include:
- Sinus and ear infections
- Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart)
- Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
- Myositis (inflammation of muscle tissue)
- Rhabdomyolysis (breakdown of muscle tissue)
- Multi-organ failure
- Worsening of chronic medical conditions such as asthma and chronic heart disease
Adults ages 65 and up should seek immediate emergency medical care if they experience any of the following signs of flu sickness:
- Pressure or pain in the chest or abdomen
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sudden dizziness
- Persistent or severe vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve and then return with a worse cough and fever
Lake Park is a strong, friendly and resilient community located in Oakland, CA. From a variety of floor plans and abundant social opportunities to full-service care if you need it, residents of our Continuing Care Retirement Community have complete peace of mind for their healthy lifestyle. Our community is even able to provide skilled nursing care when the flu and its complications strike. Want to know more? Contact us today and we’ll show you what senior living should be.