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Flu Prevention for Seniors

More than 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur in people 65 years and older, the CDC reports on www.cdc.gov. About 90 percent of deaths that occur from influenza

Published: Aug 26, 2014

Advice for Seniors: Get a Flu Shot

As with any medical treatment and prevention, your doctor is the only one who should advise you or your loved one to obtain a flu shot. However, information from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicate the best way to prevent the flu and stop it from spreading is a flu shot, especially for senior adults. This is because the flu can be especially dangerous to seniors above the age of 65.

What is influenza and why is it more dangerous for seniors?

Influenza, also know as the flu, is caused by a virus, also commonly known as a germ. More specifically, influenza is a respiratory infection. While most people recover in 1-2 weeks from the flu, for others influenza develops into a more serious lung infection. This type of flu complication can land one in the hospital, and also lead to Pneumonia, Bronchitis and other serious infections. At worst, the flu can cause death, and is the fourth leading cause of death among seniors 65 and older. 

The specific numbers are scary: More than 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur in people 65 years and older, the CDC reports on cdc.gov. About 90 percent of deaths that occur from influenza happen to seniors. 

The flu is a greater concern for the elderly because, as we get older, our immune system becomes weaker. This makes it easier for seniors to not only get the flu, but to fight off complications that might develop from it.

What is a flu shot and when should I get it?

As with any vaccine, a flu shot contains a weakened or killed part of the germ that causes the illness. Because this germ is so weak, it helps your body develop antibodies, which are substances that boost your immune systems. According to the CDC, once you develop antibodies against the flu, cells that have 'learned' to fight the virus remain ready to combat it when you are exposed, or come down with the flu.

Because it takes a bit of time before your body is fully ready to fight off the flu virus, most medical experts recommend you get a flu shot in November. In general the 'flu season' begins in December and can last until the spring. If you wait until midst of flu season to get a shot, these antibodies won't have enough time to develop immunity from the flu.

Many pharmacies, such as CVS, are now offering the flu shot. Even though these flu shots must be administered by qualified professionals, talk to you doctor first to let them know you plan to get vaccination and where. According to the National Institution on Aging, Medicare will pay for a flu shot.

Are caregivers more susceptible to the flu?

Although younger adults are more likely to successfully fight off the flu, if you are caring for a loved one, you might be exposed to the flu before your loved one shows symptoms.

The flu virus is contagious and can spread to someone only six feet away. An article written by Anthony Cirillo for About.com's Assisted Living page states one can infect another person one day before symptoms begin, and up to five to seven days after. Some studies show children may pass the virus to others for a longer duration.

The flu typically spreads when someone sneezes, coughs or talks. It can also be spread when someone touches a surface, then their own mouth, nose or eyes. 

Because the flu is so easily spread, caregivers should take extra precautions when near a loved one who has the flu. They should also take precautions to avoid getting the flu themselves because a senior in their care is more susceptible to the virus.

In addition to a vaccine, how do I prevent the flu?

Everyday precautions are you or your loved one's best defense against flu. Some basic ways to prevent the virus is to wash your hands carefully and often; avoid touching your eyes; and stay inside and away from others if you don't feel well. 

Your doctor may prescribe anti-viral drugs for you or your loved that can be beneficial within 48 hours of the onset of the flu. However, some physicians and other medical professionals advise against the elderly using these prescriptions.

There is a fair amount of evidence that a healthy diet and some supplements can prevent the flu and lessen its severity. According to Simin N. Meydani, Ph.d, a researcher at Tufts University, studies conducted in nursing homes indicated that zinc plays a role in fighting the flu. In nearly 600 nursing facilities, the residents who had normal zinc concentration were less susceptible to the flu, and had a shorter duration of it than those with low zinc levels.

How do I know if I should call my doctor about the flu?

The common symptoms of the minor flu are: muscle aches, dry cough, sore throat and a runny or stuffy nose.

If you suspect your loved one's symptoms have grown worse over one or two days, always call the doctor. Here are some signs that indicate the flu has reached a severity that requires hospitalization or additional treatment:

  • shaking chills
  • pain in the chest or abdomen, or shortness of breath
  • confusion and abrupt dizziness
  • high-fever or sweating (how high of a temp here?)
  • diarrhea
  • coughing up phlegm that is yellow, green or white.

References
The editors of the National Institute on Aging's website: nia.nih.gov
The editors of flu.gov
Consumer Reports News, 'Should I take Tamiflu to treat the flu? January, 2013
'Adequate Zinc Levels Help Quell Pneumonia in Elderly,' by Tufts University's Simin N. Meydani, Ph.D, via Med Page Today.
The editors of WebMD
'What You Should Know and Do this Flu Season if You are 65 Years and Older,' by the editors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) via www.cdc.gov 

 
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