One of our staff members here at the American Public Health Association told us a story recently about her 72-year-old father and the flu. Last winter, after babysitting for his 8-year-old granddaughter, he noticed he feeling achy and congested. He'd received his flu shot, so he assumed that the symptoms would quickly disappear. But within a short period of time, his flu symptoms progressed to pneumonia and delirium set in. He spent the next two weeks in the hospital. Luckily, he recovered.
You may often hear older adults say they received a flu shot, but got the flu anyway. The fact is that while flu shots don't work as well at preventing flu in older adults compared to younger ages, the shots do reduce the likelihood of death or hospitalization from flu. Older adults are at an increased risk of complications when they get the flu. Older adults are also more likely to have chronic conditions, weaker immune systems and poor cough reflexes, making it more difficult for them to recover when infected with flu viruses.
To prevent complications from the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that older adults also get a pneumococcal vaccination at the same time they get a flu shot. While a nasal flu vaccine is available, it is not recommended for people older than age 49, as it contains a live virus.
In the case of our staff member's father there were a few things he could've done differently that might have kept him out of the hospital:
* He could have called his doctor within the first 48 hours of his flu symptoms. There are some treatments available that can reduce the severity of flu symptoms and speed recovery; however, treatment must begin within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms in order to be effective.
* He could have asked his granddaughter to wash her hands every time she came in the house after school. While children can be a delight for doting grandparents, they are also infection magnets, and can easily transmit the flu to older adults, even if kids are not sick themselves. Handwashing is an easy, highly effective way to keep grandparents safe from the unintentional infections of children.
* He could have been aware that his chronic condition might make recovery difficult. The man at the center of the story has Parkinson’s disease, making recovery from the flu more difficult. Knowing this, he could have gone to bed sooner to rest, increased his fluid intake (lack of fluids caused his delirium) and avoided alcohol. Had he taken these precautions, his recovery might not have been so difficult.
While precautions for flu such as handwashing and getting flu shots are the same for adults of any age, older adults need to be even more vigilant by contacting their doctor and taking extra care at the first sign of symptoms. While some older adults may not be able to avoid the flu completely, in many cases they can keep it from being deadly.