It’s that time of year again, when health care providers everywhere are talking about the flu. It’s never fun to get sick, but did you know the flu can be especially dangerous for seniors?
And when seniors fall ill, it can be much worse than the typical fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and chills that many of us shake off after a week or two.
Statistics show that 70 percent of all seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur in the elderly, and that seniors who get the flu have an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke, even weeks after they recover. What’s more, up to 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in adults age 65 or older.
“People need to realize we are taking care of a vulnerable population of the elderly who need a higher level of protection than the general population,” said Brian J. Kiedrowski, M.D., Executive Vice President and Enterprise Chief Medical Officer for Miami Jewish Health, where 1,200 people, mostly seniors, cross paths daily.
Influenza (flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. Medical experts say the best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine each fall.
Individuals Over 65 Are More Susceptible to Illness
The “flu shot”—an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) is given with a needle, usually in the arm. It’s approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions. A higher dose is recommended for those people over age 65, who are more susceptible to flu-related complications.
Why? Because seniors often have other medical conditions which weaken their immune response to the flu.
Because the population at Miami Jewish Health is comprised of seniors, getting both workers and residents vaccinated is important to prevent flu outbreaks. An organization-wide vaccination campaign for both employees and residents began in early October.
“From an infection control standpoint, this is different than an acute care facility,” said Laura Velasco, Director of Healthcare Safety at Miami Jewish Health. “In a nursing home it can have such an impact. It’s actually more critical because the seniors live here and there is more interaction.”
Some common medical conditions that heighten the risk of flu complications include:
Chronic respiratory conditions: seniors with chronic respiratory conditions are at risk of developing severe complications because the flu is a respiratory illness. Lung inflammation and narrowed airways caused by the flu can be especially dangerous for someone with a chronic lung condition.
Diabetes: more than 20 percent of the population is affected by this disease. Flu increases an individual’s risk of slipping into a diabetic coma.
Kidney and liver disease: both these diseases can weaken the body’s immune system and cause transplants to be rejected.
Neurological conditions, cancer and HIV: many neurological conditions and other illnesses can weaken an individual’s immune system, making it more difficult to fight off the flu.
A 2017 study showed that the flu vaccination reduced deaths, intensive care unit admissions, the length of ICU hospital stays and the overall duration of hospital visits, with the greatest benefit being to seniors age 65 years and older.
Getting the flu can be an emergency: go the hospital if you or a loved one over 65 experiences the following warning symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse
Sick With the Flu? Get Treated
Treatment for the flu should begin as soon as possible because antiviral drugs work best if started within 48 hours after symptoms start. It’s important to see a doctor to access the medications needed to treat the flu.
- Antivirals are available only by prescription. These medicines fight against flu by keeping flu viruses from making more viruses in your body.
- Antiviral drugs can make your symptoms milder and speed up your recovery. They may also prevent serious complications.
- Three FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs recommended by CDC have been approved this season to treat the flu.
You can help prevent the flu by washing your hands frequently, avoiding crowded places and using hand sanitizer to kill germs.
The most common reason people have for not getting vaccinated?
They will get sick. It’s a myth.
“There has never been any verifiable study that shows that,” Kiedrowski said. “The immunization contains an inactive virus. There are times when you are going to get an upper respiratory infection and you may get it at the same time you get your shot. But there is no correlation that the flu is caused by that.”
Although seniors can receive any regular flu shot, two flu vaccines were specially formulated for individuals age 65 or older:
- A High Dose Vaccine contains four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot and is associated with a stronger immune response.
- The Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine is made with MF59 adjuvant, an additive that creates a stronger immune response to vaccination.
These two vaccines may have more mild side effects, such as pain, redness or swelling at the injection site, or headache, muscle ache and malaise.