A nasty flu season in the Southern Hemisphere has experts anticipating the same up north this winter—and urging Americans to take precautions. Australia, where flu season runs from April to October, is just finishing up its worst in five years. Likewise, New Zealand also experienced a more severe spread than it had in the prior two years.
What does all of this mean for the older person in your care?
After an almost nonexistent flu season in 2020 and a very mild one in 2021 – thanks to COVID-19 precautions – a rebound is now likely in the U.S. as well. To top it off, COVID-19 continues to spread even as public safeguards have been lifted. The coronavirus is expected to peak in December, which is often when influenza does as well.
Seniors are at high risk of serious complications from both diseases, including pneumonia and even death. In fact, of those who die from influenza, 80% to 90% are older adults, making it even more important to do everything in your power to stop the spread before it can get to them.
Importance of vaccination
While only about 45% of people get the flu shot in the U.S., the CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months be inoculated. And most experts recommend that seniors get vaccinated in September or October:
“Because it takes roughly two weeks for adequate immunity to develop after vaccination,” said Dr. Jesse P. Houghton, MD, FACG, “this will provide well-timed protection for seniors.”
Like any preventive measure, the flu shot does not prevent all infections every time, but it may lessen symptoms and reduce the chance of a severe infection. U.S. officials are also recommending a COVID-19 booster this fall because the flu vaccines only protect against specific viruses. It’s also important to make sure that everyone who provides care or lives in the household is also vaccinated, as this will limit potential exposure for your loved one.
“Seniors should get a high-dose or adjuvant flu vaccine such as Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent Vaccine and Fluad Quadrivalent Adjuvanted Vaccine or Flucelvax or Flublok Quadrivalent Recombinant Flu Vaccine (for individuals allergic to eggs).”
As you care for your older adult this winter, remember that eating plenty of fruits and veggies as a part of a healthy, balanced diet could help boost immunity and prevent illness. Make sure to include plenty of foods high in vitamins C, D and B6, as well as magnesium and zinc. Try the following foods to give immune systems a kick:
The importance of hydration cannot be overstated either: Make sure your loved one is drinking plenty of plain water to prevent dehydration as this keeps the mucous membranes at their optimum performance, trapping germs before they can get inside and infect the body.
Moderate exercise is important for maintaining a healthy immune system, regardless of age. If the elderly person in your care is able, consider taking them for a daily walk around the neighborhood. For those who are less mobile, small hand weights can be used, even in a sitting position. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of activity five days a week. Just don’t overdo it, and always ask your loved one’s physician before starting a new routine.
Getting enough rest is also paramount to flu prevention. Older people should get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night to keep their immune systems running right.
An ounce of prevention
Many of the same preventive measures that keep people safe from COVID-19 work against the flu, too:
- Exercise good hand hygiene by washing your hands regularly.
- Use hand sanitizer when soap and running water are not available.
- Don’t touch your face, especially the mouth, nose and eyes.
- Avoid touching public surfaces.
- Mask up in public places—specifically indoors but also in outdoor areas where close contact may occur.
- Stay at least six feet away from others in public spaces, whether indoors or outdoors.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue (or your elbow if necessary) instead of directly into your hands.
- Keep surfaces sanitized to prevent spread among household members.
- Isolate anyone who becomes ill and practice social distancing and masking within the household if needed.
A pound of cure
Sometimes illness happens regardless of how hard you try to prevent it. In that case, it’s important to be prepared ahead of time.
Be sure to replenish pain relievers and fever reducers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Decongestants, cough medicines and antihistamines may also be helpful, but always be sure to consult with a physician or pharmacist in regard to safety and drug interactions with prescriptions. Also, be sure to cross-reference labels before use, as medicines for cold and flu often contain pain relievers/fever reducers as well. Cough drops, nasal sprays and Vicks VapoRub are also important to have on hand.
A humidifier may be useful, and make sure you have a working thermometer (with fresh batteries), a healthy stock of tissues, hand sanitizer, and anti-bacterial/anti-viral wipes or spray.
It’s a good idea to stock up on liquids and easy shelf-stable snacks as well. Juices and sports drinks can help prevent dehydration and provide calories when eating is difficult. Because soups are easy to swallow and can help soothe a sore throat, stock your pantry with plenty of broth and chicken noodle soup, or prepare it ahead of time and freeze for when it’s needed.
While this flu season is expected to be brutal, taking the right precautions could mean the difference between life and death for many older people. Prepare ahead of time to avoid both the flu and COVID-19 and have a backup plan in case illness hits.