Cold and Flu Treatment and Prevention for Seniors

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Seniors are especially at risk from flu complications

As many as 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu each year; of this number, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 people die from flu-related complications, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seniors are especially susceptible to suffering severe complications from the flu.

The CDC estimates that nine out of 10 flu-related deaths and 60 percent of flu-related hospitalizations occur within the senior population. And even though the common cold is usually mild, it is a leading cause of doctor visits and missed days from school and work. According to some estimates, Americans suffer about 1 billion colds annually.

The flu, as well as the common cold, are highly contagious respiratory illnesses and outbreaks occur when the weather gets cold.

Cold and flu in older adults

Older people and people with chronic illnesses are at the greatest risk of getting complications, such as pneumonia, from the flu. The elderly have diminished cough and gag reflexes, and their immune systems are often compromised. In fact, of all age groups, people over 84 are at the highest risk of dying from flu complications; people over 74 face the second highest risk; and children under age four face the third highest risk, according to WebMD, a leading online provider of medical news and health care information.

What to do if you get sick

Whether you have a cold or the flu, it’s important that you get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Also, you should avoid using alcohol and tobacco. Be sure to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick. Over-the-counter medicines, such as antihistamines for a cold and fever reducers for the flu, help to relieve symptoms.

Most healthy people recover from the flu without complications. If you are at special risk from complications of flu (such as having a chronic medical condition or being 65 years and older) you should consult your health care provider when your flu symptoms begin. Your doctor may choose to use an antiviral drug to treat the flu.

Get treatment for sinus pressure or pain, a persistent or worsening sore throat, a deep cough that’s making you hack up yellow or green phlegm (all day, not just mornings), and ear pain.

Also, pay close attention to warning signs that require urgent medical attention such as high or prolonged fever, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest, near-fainting or fainting, confusion, and severe or persistent vomiting. If you have any of these symptoms you should seek medical care immediately, either by calling your doctor or going to an emergency room.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages everyone 6 months of age and older to get a flu vaccine every year. Vaccines don’t give you 100 percent protection from the flu, but so far they’re the best way to prevent flu today. The CDC also recommends that senior citizens get the pneumococcal vaccine, which helps prevent a leading cause of bacterial pneumonia in the elderly. It can be given at the same time as the flu vaccine. Unlike the flu vaccine, which is recommended every year, one pneumococcal vaccine should last a lifetime.

It’s especially important that you get vaccinated if you are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or if you live with or care for someone who is at high risk for developing flu-related complications.

People with certain medical conditions, such as asthma, suppressed immune systems, diabetes, lung disease, neurological conditions, heart disease, and kidney, liver, and blood disorders are at risk of suffering flu-related complications and should get the flu vaccine. Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities should also be vaccinated. As always, check with your health care provider to be sure you are the right candidate for receiving the flu vaccine.

The flu vaccine reduces hospitalization by about 70 percent and death by about 85 percent among older people who do not live in nursing homes, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Among nursing home residents, the flu vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization by about 50 percent, reduces the risk of pneumonia by about 60 percent, and reduces the risk of death by 75 to 80 percent.

In addition to getting your yearly flu vaccination, there are other action steps you can take to help protect yourself. This may sound elementary, but proper hand washing is one of the most effective ways to protect from cold and flu viruses, as these viruses can be inactivated by soap. Be sure to scrub your hands together and wash them under warm water for 15 to 30 seconds. Use an alcohol-based gel if you don’t have access to water. In addition, don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. This prevents germs from entering your body. Wash any shared surfaces (like phones, door handles, and countertops) frequently. Viruses can live on surfaces for several hours. If you can, try to stay away from crowds during cold and flu season. And especially stay away from anyone who is sick, particularly during the first few days of their illness when they are most contagious.

Healthy lifestyle habits are a great weapon in the fight against infection. You should eat healthy foods to nourish your immune system, such as salmon, yogurt, and dark green, red, and yellow vegetables and fruits. Get plenty of sleep, aim for seven to eight hours.

Exercise is important too. People who exercise may still catch a virus, but they often have less severe symptoms and may recover more quickly compared with a less active person.

A number of studies suggest that stress increases your susceptibility to getting a virus, regardless of lifestyle or other health habits. And once a person catches a cold or the flu, stress can make symptoms worse. Some experts believe that stress alters specific immune factors, which cause inflammation in the airways. It’s important to find a hobby or activity that reduces your stress, such as exercising, yoga, meditation, arts and crafts, listening to music, reading or spending time with family and friends.

Lastly, education is key in keeping you out of harm’s way during the cold and flu season. Be aware of the symptoms of cold and flu, know the preventative measures to take to keep yourself safe, and have a plan in place of who to call, and when, if you think you are at risk of having complications from cold and flu.

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