In the U.S., the peak influenza (flu) season runs from October through March. In 2017, the flu season was especially terrible – one of the worst in recent history. Among the hardest hit were seniors, followed closely by children and even young people in their late teens and early 20s – a group notorious for being hardy and immune to illness.
When you hear the words flu or influenza, we aren’t talking about the so-called stomach flu. The flu is a very serious respiratory viral infection that causes severe symptoms such as:
- Body and muscle aches
- Chest pressure and shortness of breath
- Fever, flushing, chills, and/or sweating
- Loss of appetite
- Sneezing, congestion, and/or runny nose
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
Along with these symptoms, influenza infection can lead to the development of other severe conditions, including pneumonia. Vaccinations and basic hygiene principles can greatly reduce the risk of infection; unfortunately, many people don’t realize just how dangerous the flu can be for seniors. It can be deadly – particularly in older adults.
Why are the flu and pneumonia so dangerous for seniors?
The influenza virus can be deadly, particularly in older people who are frail due to illness or aging. It is spread through the air and through human contact. The flu virus changes from year to year, which means patients need to be vaccinated against the virus annually to get the best protection against the most recent form of the virus.
Depending on how aggressive the flu virus is in a particular year, it can compromise a patient’s respiratory function, reducing the amount of oxygen a person can breathe in. Low oxygen intake compromises circulation, which affects the immune system. When the immune system is compromised, your entire body can shut down – including the heart, lungs, and kidneys.
We also know that influenza can result in what’s known as secondary pneumonia. One of the most common types of pneumonia is pneumococcal pneumonia, which compromises the respiratory system. When you have the flu, you’re unable to clear your lungs in the way you normally would, which puts your lungs at risk for other infections. This unfortunate combination often lands older adults in the hospital, where there is potential for an increased risk of infection.
Pneumonia is typically bacterial, not viral, and there is a separate vaccine for pneumonia. It’s recommended that the following high-risk groups get a pneumonia vaccine, which is given usually once every 10 years:
- Adults who are immunocompromised due to medications, such as steroids
- Adults with chronic health issues such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or emphysema
Check out the CDC's pneumonia resource center for more information.
How to protect your loved ones from the flu and pneumonia
1. Get vaccinated
I simply can’t stress this enough. Vaccines have been shown time and again by countless scientific research to be safe and effective for nearly everyone. Some people do have a slight reaction to the vaccine, but not a full-blown infection. In fact, it might be coincidental that you develop symptoms because we are exposed to germs all the time.
Most insurances and Medicare cover vaccinations. However, if your plan doesn’t cover vaccinations, your public health department is an excellent resource to get a vaccination or locate a community clinic that offers them at low or no cost. The ideal time to get the flu and pneumonia vaccines is before the start of the flu season, around September or early October. That said, it’s never too late to get either vaccination, particularly the pneumonia vaccine because it lasts longer.
This goes for caregivers and family members, too. Anyone who spends time around a senior or immunocompromised individual should be vaccinated. By vaccinating more people, we increase herd immunity – a safety in numbers concept that has worked to eradicate certain diseases in the West that used to be devastating, such as polio and diphtheria.
In some BrightStar Care agencies, the nurses can provide flu and pneumonia vaccinations, provided the client has a doctor’s prescription and obtains the vaccine from the pharmacy. Call 866-618-7827 or contact a BrightStar Care® home care agency near you to learn more.
2. Practice effective hand washing
Everyone comes into contact with microscopic germs and organisms on surfaces and in the air that can enter the mouth, nose, or eyes. To reduce the risk of illness, wash your hands regularly, and ensure that your aging loved ones’ hands are clean as well. And, while many grandparents love to cuddle their grandchildren, kids can be little germ-carriers, too! Make sure they wash their hands with soap and water before sharing kisses and hugs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify hand washing as one of the most important ways to reduce the transmission of infectious diseases such as the flu. Hand washing is a major part of the BrightStar Care safety protocol. We follow the Joint Commission’s national patient safety guidelines for infection protection, and one of these is hand washing compliance.
Our home care agencies are managed by registered nurses who train our in-home caregivers in effective hand washing techniques. In addition, our caregivers are required to pass a hand washing test to prove they understand how to reduce the risk of transmitting bacteria or viruses to clients and their families. We also perform supervisory visits, in which our nurses observe our caregivers in the client’s homes to ensure proper hand washing protocol and frequency. We track and trend our hand washing data to improve our patients’ care and reduce the risk of further illness. Additionally, we know that proper hand washing also protects our nurses’ health, which allows for a better continuum of care for clients.
If you would like assistance with assessing flu risk in an aging loved one, talk to your BrightStar Care nurse about your options at home. Call 866-618-7827 or contact a BrightStar Care® home care agency near you to learn more.