Nobody wants to get the flu. The fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headaches, fatigue and stuffy nose that come with it make us miserable can last for days — even weeks.
What’s worse, as we get older, the chances of serious complications — even death — resulting from the flu increase greatly. Adults ages 65 and older account for more than half of all hospitalizations due to the flu and nearly all flu-related deaths. In fact, flu and pneumonia remain among the top-ten causes of death in people over the age of 65.
“As we age, our immune systems weaken and it’s harder for us to fight off infections, including the flu,” says Kathleen Cameron, Senior Director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging.
“Older adults also tend to have more complications from the flu, which can result in pneumonia and put them in the hospital, especially if they have other chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, or lung problems, such as emphysema.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu-related complications can include upper (nose and throat) and lower (lungs) respiratory tract infections, sinus and ear infections, inflammation of the heart, pneumonia and even multi-organ failure. The flu can also exacerbate preexisting conditions such as asthma and chronic heart disease.
The flu can spread at any time throughout the year, but CDC records show it occurs most often during the fall and winter months, generally between October and March, typically hitting its peak in February. December is also a high month for flu activity. It is spread through contact with bodily fluids, often droplets from sneezing or coughing that can reach people as far as six feet away or from touching contaminated surfaces.
Stop the Spread
The best way to prevent the flu is to get an annual flu shot, which changes slightly each year based upon which strains of flu the World Health Organization has identified as those most likely to spread. Cameron says a higher-dose flu shot is now available for older adults that was developed specifically to address the age-related weakening of the immune system. Some pharmacies and grocery stores might not offer it unless requested specifically. There is also a pair of pneumonia vaccines recommended by the CDC for adults over the age of 65 as well as others who may be at high risk.
“And, of course, there are always those simple strategies to prevent the spread of the flu, such as frequent hand washing with soap and warm or cold water,” says Cameron. “This is something we should all be doing. Also, if you know someone who is sick, stay away from them if possible. If you are sick, try not to expose others to your germs. Use tissues when you cough or sneeze and if you don’t have any use the inside of your elbow to prevent germs from spreading.”
With holidays, birthdays and other special occasions that have multiple generations getting together, this can sometimes be difficult. But, Cameron says, “if there’s a young child in your family who is seriously ill, you do want to stay away from that child.”