senior couple looking at thermostatWhile anyone can be affected by the flu, seniors are particularly vulnerable. According to the CDC, 70 to 85 percent of all flu-related fatalities involve adults over age 65. Similarly, about 70 percent of all patients hospitalized with flu symptoms are senior citizens.

Multiple factors put seniors at increased risk. It’s more difficult for an older immune system to fend off illness and flu symptoms manifest differently in adults over 65, which can potentially lead to life-threatening complications.

What Is the Flu?

Influenza is a respiratory illness caused by a virus that spreads among humans and animals. Flu cases may be mild to severe and typical symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Stiff muscles or muscle cramps
  • Gastrointestinal issues, including diarrhea and vomiting

What’s Different for Seniors?

While the elderly experience these regular symptoms, the flu often presents differently in this demographic. The pattern can lead to misdiagnosis, cause the disease to spread quickly in elder care settings and may lead to a rise in complications for those with chronic illnesses. Along with the standard flu symptoms, elderly patients may also experience:

  • Shortness of breath or other breathing difficulties
  • Chest or abdominal pain
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty with or no urination
  • Debilitating muscle pain
  • Dizziness, seeming confused or decreased mental clarity
  • Weakness that affects balance
  • Recurring cough or fever
  • A chronic health condition suddenly worsens

Complications in Elderly Patients

The flu takes about two weeks to leave the average adult’s system. For seniors, this process may last longer due to weakened immunity.

However, length of recovery is not the only concern with elderly populations. Individuals living with the following chronic health conditions can experience serious complications:

  • Lung disease
  • Heart, liver and kidney issues
  • Respiratory illnesses like asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

Elderly patients affected by the flu have a higher likelihood of experiencing:

  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis, including developing chronic bronchitis
  • Dehydration, which can manifest as kidney issues or seizures
  • Heart and cardiovascular issues, with a higher risk of clots
  • Sinus and ear infections
  • Brain or muscle inflammation
  • Organ failure

What You Can Do

The CDC has stated that seniors receiving a flu vaccine have a 50-percent lower likelihood of contracting the virus, which significantly reduces the risk of health complications and hospitalizations. Yet, flu vaccines are not a cure-all.

Studies have shown the traditional flu vaccine does not have as strong of an impact on seniors as it does younger adults. As such, seniors are recommended to get:

  • High-Dose Vaccine: Includes four times the amount of antigen as a standard flu shot to strengthen a senior’s immune response.
  • Adjuvated Vaccine: Also creates a stronger immune response in older adults through the MF59 adjuvant.

Along with a flu vaccine, seniors are advised to also get a pneumococcal vaccine to reduce potential complications like pneumonia and blood infections. Additionally, certain lifestyle factors can decrease an elderly adult’s risk of catching the virus:

  • Regular exercise
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Frequent hand-washing
  • Cleaning and sanitizing living areas
  • Staying hydrated

Seniors who show signs of the flu should seek immediate medical attention. To learn about West Hartford Health & Rehabilitation Center’s approach to fighting the spread of influenza and COVID-19 among our patients, contact us today.