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Influenza and seniors

Getting the Flu

Influenza or the flu, is a viral respiratory illness that might be described as similar to but more serious than a head cold. (The unpleasant condition people often refer to as “stomach flu” is not influenza but usually gastroenteritis or a digestive upset caused by improperly prepared or stored food.)  

Influenza usually has a more rapid onset and more severe symptoms than a cold, lasts longer, and is more likely to cause the sufferer to stay in bed for a few days. The main symptoms of influenza include

  • chills
  • fever (as high as 103 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • nasal stuffiness
  • chest congestion and coughing
  • an overall feeling of discomfort (a physician will call this “malaise”)
  • headache or aching in other parts of the body, such as the back or legs

Fatigue and weakness brought on by influenza can last for days to weeks, which isn’t usually the case with a regular cold. 

Influenza can put even the strongest and healthiest individuals out of commission for a few days. But in older people and those who are already weakened by other health problems, influenza can be especially dangerous because it can lead to complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia and can worsen other medical conditions. 

Outbreaks of influenza tend to occur in the fall and winter. A key reason is that when people spend more time indoors together, the virus can spread more easily. These seasonal epidemics are usually caused by recognized flu viruses known as A and B. It is a very good idea for seniors to make sure they receive a vaccination against each year’s strain. While getting a flu shot does not guarantee you won’t get influenza, you are far less likely to get very sick or require hospitalization.   

Treating the flu

People who have not been immunized but have been exposed to influenza (for example, if another family member has it) can sometimes take an antiviral drug as a preventive measure. Such agents (amantadine, rimantidine, and ribavirin) can also lessen symptoms in someone in the very early stages of influenza. Other antiviral agents, called neuraminidase inhibitors, can sometimes shorten the duration of influenza symptoms. However, these antiviral drugs are not an option for everyone, and not all of them work against both the A and B virus types.  

Once someone has developed a case of influenza, they should try to rest until the fever has subsided and drink plenty of fluids to maintain hydration. Bothersome symptoms can be treated as needed – for example, acetaminophen or a similar agent can be taken for pain and fever; a decongestant can be used for nasal stuffiness.

Some symptoms may call for a visit to the doctor because they can signal complications. These include a fever that doesn’t subside within a couple of days, a severe or productive cough (especially one accompanied by a burning sensation in the chest), or shortness of breath. But do not hesitate to call your physician for any other reason – for example, if you just feel really poorly, or you are worried about how long your flu has lasted.

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