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Older Adults and the Flu

older adult flu

I’m sure you’ve heard the rhyme, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Unfortunately, this rhyme is not entirely truthful. Apples are healthy and good for you in many ways, but the reality is, eating an apple can’t keep you from getting sick. There is something that can do that though—vaccination (although we have yet to invent a rhyme reminding us of that).    

Vaccinations are arguably the most important contribution to medicine. They are the reason polio no longer exists in the United States and why children no longer even need inoculation from small pox.

One vaccine that is particularly important for older adults to get this time of year is the flu vaccine. The flu, short for influenza, is a respiratory virus that is easily transmittable through coughing, sneezing, singing or even talking. The flu can spread through objects, too. For instance, if an infected person coughs into their hand and then touches a doorknob that you later touch then you too could be a carrier of the flu.  Common flu symptoms include:

  •  Fever
  •  Headache
  •  Fatigue
  •  Cough
  •  Sore throat
  •  Runny or stuffy nose
  •  Body aches

With proper hydration and rest, flu symptoms tend to subside in a few days but, in some cases it can cause serious harm. Older adults are particularly vulnerable. The virus can exacerbate existing chronic conditions (like lung or heart disease) as well as cause high fever and pneumonia, leading to an increased risk of hospitalization.

If you reside in a senior living community, your risk of contracting the flu may be greater due to continued contact with your fellow inhabitants. Older individuals and those with certain health problems are susceptible for developing serious flu complications.

Luckily, there are important steps you can take to prevent flu. Washing your hands often and avoiding those who are sick are two excellent ways to limit exposure and prevent the flu. Covering your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and sneezing into the crook of your elbow (and not into your hand) are effective ways to prevent spreading the flu to others.

The most powerful and effective tool to evade the flu is a vaccination. The flu shot is now recommended for everyone age 6 months and older. The flu vaccine is created new each year to protect against new viruses, and thus, should be administered every year. The vaccine is easy to come by and should be sought out every year.

Protecting yourself against the flu not only protects you, but friends and family, too. Hey—there’s a flu rhyme you can use!


To learn more about the flu virus, click here.

Ruth Kandel, MD's picture

About the Blogger

Geriatrician, Hebrew SeniorLife, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School until December 2016

Ruth Kandel obtained her bachelor's degree from State University of New York, Buffalo and her medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She completed a residency in internal medicine at Boston City Hospital and a geriatrics fellowship at Bedford Veteran's Administration Hospital/Boston University Medical Center. She is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Her academic interests include Alzheimer's disease, memory disorders, and infection control in long-term care...

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