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Flu in Older Adults

by Nichole Salva
Mon, Sep 23rd 2013 12:00 pm

Older adults and people with chronic diseases are at the greatest risk of problems associated with seasonal flu. 

Of all age groups, individuals older than age 84 have the highest risk of dying from seasonal flu complications; those older than age 74 face the second highest risk of flu complications. Children age 4 and younger have the third highest risk of problems with seasonal flu.

How Can Older Adults Tell if They Have the Flu?


The symptoms of flu in older adults -- whether it's caused by the more typical seasonal flu viruses or the swine flu virus -- are pretty much the same as in other age groups. They may include:


fever (usual)

headache (common)

tiredness and fatigue (can last two or three weeks)

extreme exhaustion (usual at the start of flu symptoms)

general aches and pain (often severe)

chest discomfort, cough (common and can become severe)

sore throat (sometimes)

runny or stuffy nose (sometimes)

For in-depth information, see WebMD's Flu Symptoms: What You Might Feel. 


Do Older Adults Get Gastrointestinal Problems With the Flu?


Although more common in children, older adults sometimes suffer from stomach symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, with flu. These symptoms seem to be more common with swine flu.  


What Flu Complications Should Older Adults Watch For?


Complications of flu in seniors may include:




worsening of chronic medical conditions, including lung conditions such as asthma and emphysema and heart disease

It's important to see your doctor immediately if you have any of these flu complications. The sooner you start medical treatment, the faster it can work to treat the more serious symptoms.


For in-depth information, see WebMD's Flu Complications.


How Can Older Adults Prevent the Flu?


The best way to prevent the seasonal flu is to get an annual flu vaccine.


Getting a seasonal flu shot is a very smart idea. It reduces hospitalization by about 70% and death by about 85% among older adults who do not live in nursing homes, according to the National Institute on Aging. Among nursing home residents, the flu shot does the following:


reduces the risk of hospitalization by about 50%

reduces the risk of pneumonia by about 60%

reduces the risk of death by 75% to 80%

Keep in mind that the seasonal flu viruses change each year, so older adults need to get a new flu shot each fall.


The CDC recommends that older adults and senior citizens also get a one-time pneumococcal vaccine. The pneumococcal vaccine helps prevent bacterial pneumonia in older adults. This vaccine can be given at the same time as the flu shot.


For in-depth information, see WebMD's Flu Shot: Influenza Vaccine.


Where Can Older Adults Get a Flu Shot?


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers an online flu shot clinic locator. Flu vaccinations are easier to find than ever. They are commonly found at walk-in clinics at many pharmacies and grocery stores. That's in addition to local health departments and many doctors' offices. 


Can Older Adults Use the Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine?


FluMist is a nasal spray flu vaccine that contains a live flu virus. FluMist is not recommended for adults over age 49.


For in-depth information, see WebMD's What Is FluMist?


When Should Older Adults Get a Flu Shot?


The flu season can begin as early as September and last until as late as May. It's recommended that people get a flu shot early in the season so the body has a chance to build up immunity to the flu virus. It takes about two weeks for the flu shot to offer protection. Still, if you miss the early flu shots, getting a flu shot later still helps.


How Is Flu Treated in Older Adults?


Seniors should contact their health care provider if flu symptoms develop. A medical evaluation may be needed to evaluate for complications and treatment. Antiviral medication (Relenza, Tamiflu) may be prescribed.


Other recommendations for treating flu symptoms in older adults include:


Get plenty of rest.

Drink plenty of liquids.

Ask the doctor or pharmacist before buying a new over-the-counter cold or flu medicine to make sure it won't interfere with prescription drugs or complicate existing medical conditions.

For in-depth information, see WebMD's Flu Treatment.


Are There Warning Signs of the Flu That Older People Should Look For?


While the flu can make you feel very ill, sometimes flu complications can develop that will make you feel even worse. Call your doctor immediately if you have any of these signs and symptoms with flu:


You have trouble breathing with flu.

Symptoms don't improve or they worsen after three or four days.

After flu symptoms improve, you suddenly develop signs of a more serious problem including nausea, vomiting, high fever, shaking chills, chest pain, or coughing with thick, yellow-green mucus.

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