Flu in Older Adults: What You Need to Know
Influenza, known as the flu, is a respiratory infection caused by influenza viruses. While it can affect people of all ages, older adults are most at risk from its complications. Our immune system weakens as we age, making it harder to fight off infections. In this article, we will explore the challenges that older adults face from the flu and the essential precautions to take to protect their health.
Seniors are at higher risk of experiencing more intense side effects from the flu because our immune system naturally weakens as we age. When a flu infection worsens from lower immunity, it can progress into pneumonia, stroke, and sometimes death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 70-85% of seasonal-related flu deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older, and 70% of seasonal-related flu hospitalizations have occurred among people in this age group. (3)
It can often be harder to detect the flu in older adults vs. younger adults. Symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, and fever that you would typically see in a young, healthy adult may not be present in an older adult with the flu. Instead, seniors will often experience weakness, dizziness, loss of appetite, confusion, and malaise. Thankfully, flu vaccines are available and provide the best protection against the flu. Flu vaccines reduce the risk of getting the flu and facing dangerous illness if you happen to get infected.
Although annual vaccines are encouraged for everyone, they are especially beneficial for older adults and individuals with chronic health conditions, leading to fewer hospital visits. (2) Receiving yearly flu vaccines is strongly recommended because the vaccine wears off and the virus changes over time. Annual vaccines will target the specific virus for the year and keep your immunity up.
The flu vaccine is available any time of the year, but it is most common to get it in the fall or winter. Influenza becomes more present in October, peaking in December and February. Because older adults can lose protection from the flu more quickly, avoid getting your flu shot before September to maintain protection during peak flu season. The best time to get vaccinated is September and October. Getting vaccinated after October can also still provide protection during the peak of flu season.
CDC recommends (3) individuals over 65 get a higher dose of the flu vaccination or an adjuvanted flu vaccine. Talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist about which vaccine option would be best suited for you.
High-Dose Flu Vaccine
Fluzone High-Dose Seasonal Influenza Vaccine contains four times the amount of antigen compared to standard flu vaccines. This vaccine is best for individuals 65 years and older. High-dose flu vaccine creates a stronger immune response, resulting in a higher rate of seniors preventing the flu. (4)
Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine
Fluad Quadrivalent is a standard-dose, inactivated influenza vaccine containing an adjuvant. Adjuvant helps create a stronger immune response, making this another great option for seniors. (5)
Along with the flu vaccine, individuals 65 and up should also receive the pneumococcal vaccination to protect against diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis, and blood infections that can develop from the flu. Talk to your healthcare provider about which pneumococcal vaccine would be best for you. (3)
If you catch the flu, try to look out for early symptoms so you can get the necessary rest and treatment needed for recovery. Here are some tips to try at home that will ease your flu symptoms and prevent your health from declining. (1)
1. Stay Home & Get Rest
Staying home is essential if you have the flu. Call your commitments and let them know that you will be out for a week or two. You are sick and extremely contagious! Resting at home will allow your body to build your body’s immune system back up so you can be healthy again sooner.
2. Drink Fluids
Drinking fluids will help keep your respiratory system hydrated and thin out thick mucus that could lead to an infection. Water is a great way to stay hydrated, as well as fruit juices, sports drinks, tea, and broth-based soups.
3. Treat Aches & Fever
The aches from a fever can be uncomfortable and keep you from getting the rest needed to recover. Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen will decrease the pain that comes from having the flu. Ask your doctor what medication is the best fit for your symptoms.
4. Combat Congestion
If you feel congested, run the hot water in your shower. The steam from the hot water will help clear your sinuses. Another way to reduce congestion is to run a mist humidifier or vaporizer. These systems will help moisten the air and make it easier to breathe. Lastly, saline drops and sprays are good for congestion in the nose and can be found in drug and grocery stores. Put a couple of drops in each nostril and gently blow the mucus and saline out.
5. Treat Your Cough
If you have a cough, treat it with over-the-counter medications and lozenges. This will ease your symptoms and turn mucus into liquid so you can cough it up.
It’s best to practice routines that can help prevent the flu. In addition to getting the flu shot, we recommend that older adults take other precautionary measures to avoid getting the flu this year. Help stop the spread by washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, avoiding touching your face, staying home when you are sick, avoiding contact with people who are sick, and disinfecting commonly used surfaces such as your home countertops, work/school desk, and phone frequently.
Influenza remains a serious concern for older adults due to their increased vulnerability to more severe complications. Help protect the health and well-being of the senior population during flu season by getting an annual flu vaccination!