Everything You Need to Know about the Flu

man sneezing; seniors and influenza

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Flu season is upon us, and seniors should be especially cautious when it comes to this contagious virus. The influenza virus (or flu) has symptoms similar to a cold at the beginning, but symptoms can rapidly progress and create severe health complications if not treated promptly, especially for seniors.

Seniors and the flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between the years of 2010 and 2016, an estimated 12,000 to 56,000 people died every year due to flu complications. Additionally, between 70 and 85 percent of the deaths caused by flu complications occur to people over 65, and up to 70 percent of flu-related hospitalizations happen to people of the same age group.

Only one-third of seniors get the flu shot every year despite how effective the vaccine can be and how dangerous the virus is to seniors. Another reason why seniors suffer more from the flu is because of weakened immune systems due to either old age or medications like steroids and immunosuppressants. The government aims to increase flu vaccines among seniors to 90 percent by 2020.

Three forms of flu

The flu can be carried by humans, some mammals, and birds, making it easy for the virus to spread across the world with relative ease.

There are three main types of the flu:

  1. Influenza A. This is the most common type of flu and causes nearly all of the flu epidemics (localized) and pandemics (global). This version affects humans, mammals, and birds. In 1918, between 50 million and 100 million died of the Spanish flu (about one-fifth of the world’s population), which was a type A virus.
  2. Influenza B. This type makes up about 20 percent of infections and only appears in humans.
  3. Influenza C. The mildest type of the flu, type C is passed among humans and swine and is not preventable with a vaccine.

The flu vaccine

You can get a flu shot from healthcare locations like a doctor’s office, pharmacy, blood-testing lab, or shot clinic. Flu shots are covered by Medicare and most health insurance providers.

Possible side effects include:

  • Soreness at the site of injection
  • Allergic reaction
  • Problems breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dizziness

The flu shot contains traces of an egg protein called ovalbumin. People with egg allergies are still encouraged to get the flu shot; however, they will need to be monitored for at least 30 minutes after the injection in case of an allergic reaction.

A flu vaccine nasal mist is an alternative to the flu shot, but it is not recommended for seniors as it is not as powerful and effective as the shot.

Flu complications

The flu can sometimes present itself as a common cold in the early stages (fever, runny nose, sore throat), but symptoms progress very quickly. Common symptoms of the flu include:

  • Constant cough
  • Chills
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headaches
  • Stomach issues like diarrhea or vomiting

With proper treatment and medication, the flu could last about two weeks. However, if not treated promptly, it could create much more dangerous complications, especially for seniors.

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Major flu complications include:

  1. Pneumonia. This respiratory illness is the fourth leading killer of the elderly. Common symptoms include chest pain, coughs, shaking, sweating, and lower body temperature. You may be able to prevent post-flu pneumonia with a vaccine.
  2. Bronchitis. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lungs, and the main symptom is a cough driven by lung irritation and mucus. Some forms of bronchitis will clear up in about two to three weeks, but other forms can recur over several years or longer.
  3. Sinus and ear infections. If your flu is accompanied by ear pain lasting more than two days, it could be an infection. If you have more than two sinus issues (more than just sneezing and a runny nose), it could point to a sinus infection. You should have these infections treated in addition to treating the flu.
  4. Dehydration. Seniors lose 10 to 15 percent of their total body water content as they age. This puts them at risk of becoming severely dehydrated with the flu. Feeling sick coupled by mobility issues getting to the bathroom could discourage seniors from drinking enough water, but it’s crucial to stay hydrated as dehydration can lead to kidney problems, seizures, and other potentially fatal conditions.

How to prevent the flu

The best way to prevent the flu is to get a vaccine, which is 60 percent effective. You can also prevent the flu by leading a healthy lifestyle, avoiding sick people, getting other vaccines, and seeking medical help immediately if you are feeling ill.


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