Cold and Flu

Flu in Seniors: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

When the weather becomes cool and the leaves start to change we begin to change into jackets and mittens. But we should also change our habits surrounding infectious respiratory diseases like influenza. Influenza, commonly called the flu, circulates more rapidly in the colder months and is especially hard on seniors. This is illustrated by the CDC’s statistic that “…between 70-percent and 85-percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older…” 

Anyone who is over 65-years-old or knows someone who is over 65 should learn as much as they can about the flu to protect themselves and the ones they love. In this article, we’ll talk about flu symptoms, causes, treatments, and the best ways to prevent catching it in the first place.

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Symptoms: Fever, Chills, Cough, & More

Influenza causes fever, chills, body aches, headaches, and oftentimes a cough. Its symptoms come on fast and furious. Many people who have had the flu describe it as getting hit by a bus. Seniors have weaker immune systems than adults, making it more likely that their symptoms will be more pronounced.

A cold can easily be confused with the flu. The major differences between the two are that a cold’s onset is gradual. The symptoms of a cold also are less severe. Those suffering from a cold are more likely to have a runny nose than those with the flu.

Symptoms: Complications

Seniors are at a particularly high risk of developing complications related to the flu. With their immune system unable to fight the infection as strongly as a younger person they are more apt to develop bronchitis and pneumonia. These two conditions affect the lungs and if not treated promptly can develop into a larger problem like a bloodstream infection.

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to your lungs. The symptoms are cough with mucus, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness reports MedlinePlus. Pneumonia is a more serious condition that has a larger impact on your overall lung health. The infection causes the air sacs to fill up with fluid or pus reports the source.

Cause: Influenza Virus

The cause of every influenza case is the influenza virus. Don’t believe the old wives tale, you can’t get the flu from being outside without a coat. Influenza is only caused by a virus, though it does share many of the same symptoms as other infections like the common cold. The best way to determine if you have influenza is to get tested. Flu testing is done with a quick nose swab and you can get your results in as fast as 15-minutes.

Three types of influenza infect humans, influenza A, influenza B, and influenza C. Influenza A and B have multiple subtypes and are the main causes of seasonal influenza cases, reports the CDC. Influenza A is the only known type to cause flu pandemics like the H1N1 pandemic from 2009. The CDC tells us, “a pandemic can occur when a new and very different influenza A virus emerges that both infects people and has the ability to spread efficiently between people.”

Treatment: Antiviral Medication

As seniors are at a higher risk for complications related to the flu they are one of the first in line to receive any treatments if they develop the infection. Antiviral medications like Tamiflu (oseltamivir) are prescription-only medications that cannot be found over-the-counter in drug stores. These medications work best when given within the first 48-hours of the onset of symptoms.

While antiviral flu drugs are a part of influenza treatment for many people it’s important to know that the antiviral treatment will not cure you but it will shorten the duration and severity of the symptoms. Remember that antibiotics will not do anything to treat influenza but could help if you develop a secondary infection like bronchitis or pneumonia. Contact your doctor if you believe you have influenza, they will determine if an antiviral prescription drug is right for you.

Treatment: Supportive Care

If you’ve been diagnosed with the flu there are so many different ways you can help reduce your symptoms and keep yourself comfortable. You definitely do not need to grin and bear it. Start off by drinking plenty of water. Seniors are at a higher risk of dehydration, especially when they have a fever, by drinking plenty of water you’ll support your body throughout the illness.

Other ways to incorporate supportive care while you have influenza is to rest and take over-the-counter fever reducers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen. With no known cure for influenza, supporting your body in the best ways possible will encourage your immune system to fight off the infection and get you back to your old self.

Treatment: Medical Treatment

Sometimes when you have the flu, you can do everything in your power to prevent complications and despite all your work they still happen. If the flu has become too severe to manage at home you will need to seek medical treatment. Your doctor can use a variety of methods to support you while your body fights off the infection.

A few medical treatments that might be necessary are supplemental oxygen, intravenous fluids, and antibiotics (not for influenza but other infections). Oxygen is used when your own oxygen levels are low or you are having difficulty breathing. Intravenous (IV) fluids are given when you are dehydrated or cannot drink water. And as we talked about earlier, antibiotics are used to treat other infections you may have contracted while you had influenza.

Prevention: Handwashing

The best way for seniors to manage the flu is to never get it in the first place. This includes regularly washing your hands. Handwashing with soap and water will wash away the virus from your hands. To be effective you’ll need to scrub your hands for 20-seconds or the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” says the CDC.

Wash your hands before you eat, after using the bathroom, after touching someone or something else, and anytime you see visible dirt on your hands. Unlike hand sanitizer which kills bacteria and viruses, soap and water will completely remove the germs from your hands. Handwashing is the preferred method of removing germs but if you don’t have soap and water available hand sanitizer with at least 60-percent alcohol is an acceptable substitute.

Prevention: Avoid Close Contact and Crowds

Seniors tend to have a weakened immune system making them more likely to contract the flu and develop complications from the infection. The flu is a respiratory virus, which allows it to spread quickly when people are in confined spaces or in large crowds. A simple sneeze or cough can send virus particles flying into the air potentially infecting the people nearby.

Stay away from large crowds and avoid close contact with others during the flu season. Healthline suggests that “you can also protect yourself by staying away from people who are sick. Keep your distance from anyone who’s coughing, sneezing, or has other symptoms of a cold or virus.”

Prevention: Boost Your Immune System

A strong immune system is another way to prevent the flu. Your immune system fights off infections or even can prevent them from happening. Thankfully, there are multiple ways you can strengthen your immune system to keep your body in tip top shape.

A goodnight’s sleep, physical activity, and a healthy diet are all simple, yet effective ways for you to boost your immune system. Healthline suggests, “sleep at least 7- to 9-hours per night. Also, maintain a regular physical activity routine — at least 30-minutes, three times a week.” We know that junk food isn’t good for our body, so eating nutrient dense foods like vegetables and fruits will give our body the minerals and vitamins we need to stay healthy and prevent the flu.

Prevention: Avoid Touching Your Face

The flu virus is spread when it comes in contact with mucus membranes, this means your eyes, mouth, and nose. If you have touched a surface or someone who has the virus you can spread it to yourself by touching your face. Many of us have strong habits of resting our heads on our hands or just touching our face inadvertently. It’s time to become more conscious about this to prevent the spread of influenza.

Seniors need to incorporate every prevention technique to keep themselves healthy. It’s crucial that we listen to the CDC when they tell us to “avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. [Because] germs spread this way.”

Prevention: Flu Vaccine

We’ve saved the best for last. The absolute best way to prevent influenza is the influenza vaccine. WebMD reports that “a high-dose flu vaccine is made just for seniors. It has four times as much active ingredient as a regular flu shot to provide a better immune response in older people. It’s recommended for people august 65 and older, if it’s available.”

The flu shot will decrease the likelihood of hospitalization and decreases death rates in seniors who live in nursing homes reports the source. Don’t forget that the flu virus changes a little bit every year, this means that seniors will need to get a flu shot every fall to have full protection. In addition to the flu shot, there are vaccines to prevent pneumonia available to healthy seniors. Talk to your doctor to see if you qualify for these extra immunizations.

Patty Weasler, RN

Patty Weasler, RN

Patty is a freelance health writer and nurse (BSN, CCRN). She has worked as a critical care nurse for over 10 years and loves educating people about their health. When she's not working, Patty enjoys any outdoor activity that she can do with her husband and three kids.