Each year, the flu is a major health concern for older adults — and it’s taking on even more importance in light of the ongoing spread of novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Commonly shortened to “flu,” influenza is a contagious respiratory illness that is caused by viruses in the influenza family. The flu can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages, with older adults considered to be high risk for some of its more dangerous complications. Common symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, aches, chills, and fatigue. Common complications from the flu include infections, pneumonia, inflammation, and even organ failure.
Generally, the colder months of the year are considered to be “flu season,” and experts recommend that older adults get vaccinated as early as possible — ideally, during the month of October.
Looking for more information and guidance on how to navigate this unusual and unpredictable flu season? We’re here for you. Let’s explore some of the crucial things for older adults and family caregivers to know about the flu:
Seniors and the Flu: What are the Risks?
As we age, our immune systems change — and our ability to defend against viruses weakens. Many older adults also manage chronic illnesses, ranging from cardiovascular disease to diabetes. As a result of these factors, people 65 and older are considered to be at high risk for developing serious complications from the flu.
As the CDC explains, people 65 and older “bear the greatest burden of severe flu disease” each season. The CDC estimates that about 70-85% of seasonal flu-related deaths occur among people 65 and older, as do 50-70% of flu-related hospitalizations.
It is also important for family caregivers to be mindful of the flu. Many family caregivers deal with chronic stress and burnout, and say that they do not get enough time to rest, exercise, or prepare healthy meals. As a result, many caregivers have weakened immune systems, which can also make them susceptible to the flu’s most devastating effects.
The Importance of Getting the Flu Vaccine for the Elderly
Public health experts agree that the best way for older adults to protect themselves against the flu is to receive a vaccine each year.
Research has shown, for instance, that receiving the flu vaccine helps reduce the risk for flu-associated hospitalizations among older adults by about 40%, on average. Flu vaccination also helps reduce the risk of being admitted to an ICU due to the flu by 82%.
The flu vaccine also helps reduce the risk of complications among seniors who may have other chronic health conditions. Studies have shown that vaccination helps reduce the likelihood of suffering a cardiac event due to flu, while also reducing hospitalizations among people with chronic lung disease and diabetes.
Remember that the flu shot must be administered each year. As the CDV explains, flu vaccines are updated as needed to keep up with changing viruses and to safeguard against waning immunity. You can learn more about the types of flu viruses that experts are monitoring for the 2020-21 season here.
The CDC stresses that people 65 and older should receive a flu shot, and not a nasal spray vaccine. Per the CDC, adults over 65 “can get any flu vaccine approved for use in their age group with no preference for any one vaccine over another.” This includes two vaccines designed specifically for older adults — the high dose flu vaccine, and the adjuvanted flu vaccine. The high-dose vaccine contains more than four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot, to produce a stronger immune response. The adjuvanted flu vaccine, brand name Fluad, includes an additive shown to produce a significantly higher immune response among older adults.
The Flu Vs. COVID-19: What Seniors and Caregivers Need to Know
With the coronavirus continuing to circulate here in Illinois and around the globe, this flu season is sure to be even trickier than usual. While they have many similarities, there are also many key differences between COVID and influenza, and it’s important for families to know what sets them apart.
As the CDC notes, flu and COVID-19 “can both result in serious illness, including illness resulting in hospitalization or death.” These two nasty viruses also share some common symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore threat, muscle pains and body aches, headaches, and a running or stuffy nose. As the CDC explains, both COVID and flu can have “varying degrees of signs and symptoms,” ranging from severe to asymptomatic.
With that said, there are also key differences in how these diseases spread, what their incubation periods are, and what complications could develop. The best defense is knowledge. To learn more about the differences between flu and COVID, explore this handy guide from the CDC.
The flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19. Both illnesses require testing to be accurately identified. The CDC has developed a test that can check for both common seasonal flu viruses and SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. You can learn more about testing on the CDC’s site, here.
Other Preventive Steps to Avoid the Flu and COVID
In addition to receiving the flu vaccine, there are lots of everyday steps that older adults and caregivers can take to help reduce the likelihood of spreading dangerous airborne illnesses, including both the flu and COVID-19. Here are some of the basic prevention steps recommended by the CDC:
- Avoid close contact. By now, we’re all familiar with the concept of social distancing. During fall and winter, leave some physical distance and avoid close contact with people who may be sick. If you believe you may have been exposed or are showing any symptoms, stay home from work, school and errands to avoid spreading the illness around your community.
- Cover your mouth and nose. When coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue. Try to catch sneezes in your elbow, rather than your hands.
- Clean your hands regularly. Washing your hands often will help offer protection from germs. Use soap and water and lather for 20 seconds; in a pinch, you can also use alcohol-based hand sanitizers. For more information on proper handwashing, please visit our guide for seniors and caregivers, available here.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Avoid touching your face. Infections can be caused when a person touches something that is contaminated, and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Regularly clean and disinfect surfaces. Clean and disinfect frequently used “touchpoints” around your home, including counters, doorknobs, lightswitches, and remotes. For more information on how to sanitize household surfaces, check out our guide, here.
- Practice healthy habits. Take care of your body, and your body will take care of you. Seniors and caregivers can help give their immune systems a boost by taking simple steps like getting plenty of sleep, being more physically active, managing stress, staying hydrated, and eating nutritious meals.
Next Steps: Finding a Vaccine Near You
To find out more about receiving the flu vaccine in your area, you can use the CDC’s VaccineFinder tool, available here. VaccineFinder is a free online resource that allows users to search for locations that offer vaccinations in their community, including clinics, pharmacies, and local health departments.
For more information about how flu vaccinations and Medicare, you can consult this guide, courtesy of Medicare.gov.
Looking for Help Caring for Your Loved Ones During the Fall and Winter? We Are Here for You.
At Companions for Seniors, we know that the coldest months of the year can present some serious caregiving challenges — even without the double whammy of COVID and the flu to watch out for.
Looking for more resources? Here are some of our guides to helping the elderly adults in your life stay safe and healthy through fall and winter:
- Winter Outdoor Safety for Seniors
- Taking Care of Elderly Family When the Weather Turns Cold
- What Is a Safe Home Temperature for Seniors?
- Helping Seniors Cope With Extreme Weather
- Caring for Older Adults During an Emergency
Have any more questions about supporting an elderly parent, or finding ways to help them remain in their home safely and securely? Do you have an aging loved one who could benefit from the companionship and support of a trained professional caregiver?
Locally owned and operated in Chicago, Illinois, with clients in the city and suburbs, Companions for Seniors is a home care company like no other.
We offer a variety of services designed to help our clients remain in the comfort of their own homes, while ensuring that their needs are met. Our trained and bonded Companions are available on a full- or part-time basis, and can offer driving services in the comfort of a company car.
Our services are flexible, convenient, and it’s easy to get started. Companions for Seniors provides a free virtual or in-home assessment of your senior family’s current situation, and in most cases we can be up and running within just two days. We understand that every situation is unique, so we provide a personalized care plan that’s modified to meet each client’s specific needs. As a client’s situation changes, so does our plan of care.
Don’t hesitate to reach out online today to get the conversation started, or give us a call at 866-910-9020.