The flu virus is currently receiving more than its usual share of news coverage, with many outlets reporting that this year’s outbreak is especially severe and has even resulted in several fatalities in our area. Being among the populations most vulnerable to flu complications, seniors are urged to take prudent steps to avoid contracting the flu and to seek medical care promptly if they get sick with the flu.
What exactly is the flu?
Influenza, or the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness that spreads in one of two ways. The more common mode of transmission is when someone infected with influenza sneezes, coughs, or talks and produces airborne droplets that enter the mouth or nose of a healthy person nearby. It’s also possible to get the flu by touching an object or surface (e.g., a doorknob or countertop) that is contaminated with the virus and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes.
Symptoms to watch for include sudden onset of fever, muscle or body aches, headache, cough, sore throat, fatigue, and runny or stuffy nose. Symptoms may also include vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children than in adults.
Why are seniors at such high risk?
Gayle Young, Director of Marketing, Communication, and Public Relations for Sunset Retirement Communities, explains, “When seniors get sick with the flu, they’re much more likely to develop severe complications that can lead to hospitalization or even death. One reason for this vulnerability is that as we age, our immune system tends to weaken so we can’t fight off infection as efficiently. Also, the older we get, the more prone we are to develop chronic medical conditions that can be worsened by the flu, such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, or kidney disease. Another issue is that the weakness and fatigue commonly associated with flu increases the risk of debilitating falls in seniors, who often have balance and mobility issues to begin with.”
Young further notes that one of the most worrisome potential complications of influenza in seniors is pneumonia, which can quickly become life-threatening. Seniors should seek immediate medical attention if they experience symptoms of pneumonia, which can include (among others) a cough that produces mucus; chest pain when breathing or coughing; shortness of breath; fatigue or weakness; fever and chills; nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea; and mental confusion.
How can seniors protect themselves?
“The first and best line of defense against catching the flu is getting the flu vaccine, and we encourage all of our residents who are candidates for the vaccine to get it before the start of flu season,” says Young. “Even though the flu season is already peaking this year, it can extend as late as May, so you can still protect yourself—and others around you—by getting a flu shot as soon as possible.”
Each year’s flu vaccine contains an inactivated form of the particular strains that research determines are most likely to be circulating in that particular flu season. The match between the strains in the vaccine and those actually circulating in the community isn’t always perfect, so it’s possible to get the flu despite getting vaccinated. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even if the shot isn’t closely matched, it still has the potential to impart benefits—the reason being, antibodies produced in response to the vaccine can provide protection against different but related influenza strains.
Of course, maintaining healthy habits can help keep influenza at bay as well. “We encourage our residents to eat adequate amounts of healthy, nutrient-rich foods; drink plenty of fluids; get ample recuperative rest; and exercise on a regular basis so they can maintain a healthy body and immune system—and each of our communities offers a wide range of programs, services, and amenities to help them achieve these goals,” Young says.
In addition to an annual flu vaccination and getting adequate nutrition, rest, and exercise, seniors can help prevent the spread of the flu through frequent, thorough hand washing; keeping their hands away from their mouth, nose, and eyes; covering their nose and mouth with the crook of their arm when coughing or sneezing; and avoiding close contact with others who are sick. “Of course, it’s also vital for seniors’ caregivers and loved ones to take all these same precautions so they don’t spread the flu to this vulnerable population,” Young adds.
How long will it take to recover?
A bout with the flu usually ends within two weeks, but complete recovery may be a more drawn-out process for seniors who have been weakened by the infection. In some cases, a period of rehabilitation may be necessary to strengthen de-conditioned muscles, rebuild stamina, or address any lingering balance issues. “In fact, we’ve seen several seniors, who’ve recently had a bout of flu, need a short-term stay at our new rehab center, which is located on the campus of Sunset Village in Sylvania, in order to regain strength and function,” says Young. ❦