Experts say this year’s flu season
could be really bad…
and that means potentially more elderly deaths from the illness.
The flu is spreading unusually fast this year, and could be the worst in recent history.
Experts site two reasons for this: First— an accidental mutation in the virus used to develop the vaccine has rendered this year’s vaccine only about 10 percent effective. Secondly, the strain of flu we are seeing this year is a particularly mean one. According to National Institute of Health’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, this particular strain, known as H3N2, is one that “tends to make people more severely ill.”
“The flu” is not like a common cold. Influenza Kills. The young, the old and those with chronic health conditions are the most vulnerable for serious complications and at risk of dying. That puts our aging parents (and sadly, even those of us over age 50) square in the flu’s crosshairs.
Last year alone 970-thousand people here in the U.S. were hospitalized with complications of the flu. On average, about 36,000 people will die each year from these complications.
But the flu knows no age boundaries. Just yesterday, a 20-year-old Arizona mother of two died just one day after being diagnosed. She was perfectly healthy leading up to her illness.
As of this morning, the CDC is reporting Flu outbreak in 24 states, four of which are experiencing widespread activity.
And since the Holiday Season is notoriously a perfect breeding ground for flu virus and the spread of the infection, it’s important to take precautions now.
So, what can you do to protect yourself and your aging parents from the flu and it’s life-threatening complications?
First, experts say… get a flu shot.
Even if you do get the flu after getting your flu shot, you will be less likely to spread it. Plus, studies show that those who have been vaccinated recover faster with less complications and severe symptoms.
It’s important to note here that receiving a flu vaccine can’t give you the flu. The vaccine is made up of dead virus particles that can’t cause an infection.
Very rarely, some people do have a slight reaction to the vaccine and may develop a slight fever and minor aches, but it is not an infection with the virus.
More often, the reason some people claim they have gotten sick from the flu shot results from them being exposed to cold viruses around the same time they receive the vaccine. As a result, they come down with cold symptoms, and then blame the vaccine for “giving them the flu.” This simply can’t happen.
I also occasionally hear another concern from my clients that receiving the influenza vaccine will “weaken” their immune systems and they won’t be able to fight the disease when they are exposed to it. Infectious Disease experts say, quite the opposite is true – by receiving the vaccine, your body’s immune system will be prepared to react quickly to the virus if and when you are exposed to it.
Without receiving the vaccine, it takes your body days to produce antibodies to fight off the infection leading to prolonged illness as well as an increased susceptibility to other serious complications like pneumonia.
Wash Your Hands
Besides getting a flu shot, regular hand washing is also a very important part of stopping the spread of germs. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly throughout your travels, after coughing or sneezing, visiting the restroom, shopping, or attending holiday parties. Anytime you need to cough or sneeze, cover your mouth completely within your elbow to help keep your hands germ-free.
Norovirus, a gastrointestinal virus generally referred to, as a “stomach bug,” can also be common during this time of year and leads to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever.
If you’re sick… Stay Home
If you do get sick— especially if you have a high fever or other flu-like symptoms—please stay at home and keep away from your aging parents.
If you are experiencing symptoms of the flu, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor or go to urgent care as soon as possible.
Cold vs. Flu
Symptoms of influenza usually include rapid onset of fever (typically 100-103), dry cough, runny nose, chills, headache and body aches. Most people describe it as being suddenly “hit by a truck.” This is in contrast to the common cold, which usually has a slow onset— low-grade fever (usually 100 or less), cough, runny nose and mild body aches. Both illnesses usually last around ten days.
Since a virus causes influenza, antibiotics are useless. There are anti-viral medications available to shorten the course of influenza, but they must be started in the first 48 hours of illness to be of any benefit.
Many people choose not to take the medication since it is expensive, has some side effects and may only shorten the course by a day or two. But doctors advise the medication should be administered to high-risk individuals.
Who is at risk?
According the CDC, those most at-risk for serious complications:
• Children younger than five, but especially children under two;
• Adults 65 and older;
• Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum);
• Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities;
• American Indians and Alaskan Natives;
• Persons of any age with chronic medical conditions;
• Persons undergoing therapy, or with a condition that may weaken their immune systems;
• Persons caring for someone in these groups should also be vaccinated. Healthcare workers, household contacts of individuals at risk for complications from the flu, daycare and school workers.
While it’s best to contact your health care provider for advice on whether or not to be seen, doctors say people who should see their physician include those with heart or lung conditions and children under the age of two.
Those who have diabetes or weak immune systems should also be seen since they are more likely to develop secondary complications of influenza.
Shortness of breath and dehydration with severe weakness are also indications to be seen.
The experts I consulted with for this article say, if you get influenza, the best thing to do is stay home, drink plenty of fluids and get as much rest as possible.
If at all possible avoid coming into contact with your aging parents while you are symptomatic. Doing so limits the risk of making them sick, too. Which is important since complications tend to get worse with age. If you must attend to your aging parents, be sure to wear a disposable surgical mask and gloves (available at your drug store or online).
Since this year’s vaccine will have low effectiveness, it becomes even more important to wash your hands frequently to avoid catching the flu or spreading it to others. Bear in mind, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are definitely not as effective as hand washing. They’re okay in a pinch, but they are not a replacement.
Contact: Diane Berardi- Gerontologist