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How the Flu Affects the Elderly

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Updated July 27, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

One of the groups of people at highest risk for complications and death from the the flu is the elderly. Adults over the age of 65 make up the largest number of people who suffer serious complications from the flu -- like pneumonia and bronchitis -- and older adults are more likely to be hospitalized or even die from their illness.

Symptoms

Flu symptoms in the elderly include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Lethargy and exhaustion
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Body aches
  • Headache

Some people may experience vomiting or diarrhea with the flu as well, but it is not a common symptom.

Complications

Older adults are more likely to suffer from flu complications than younger people. In fact, 90% of flu-related deaths occur in people over the age of 65. More than half of people who have to be hospitalized due to the flu are in this age group as well.

Pneumonia is one of the most common - and serious - flu complications that occur in the elderly. It can develop quickly and become very severe in older adults who aren't able to fight off the infection. If you are an older adult, and either have chest pain or a cold that lasts for more than two weeks, you should see a doctor.

How the Elderly Can Avoid the Flu

The best way for older adults to avoid the flu is to get a flu shot. The traditional flu shot and a new high-dose flu vaccine are available for the elderly.

If the flu shot is not an option, antiviral medications may be an option to help an older adult avoid the flu. Because they are only available by prescription, you will need to discuss this option with your health care provider.

Every day precautions for staying healthy are especially important for the elderly. Washing your hands frequently, staying away from other people who are sick and not touching your mouth, eyes and nose are easy ways we can all stay healthy.

The flu is a very serious illness for all of us and shouldn't be dismissed as a bad cold. But it can be even more serious and life threatening for the elderly. If you are over the age of 65 or care for someone who is, be sure to do everything you can to protect yourself from the flu. And if you think you may have the flu, contact your health care provider right away to determine the best course of treatment.

Sources:

"Seniors (Adults 65 Years and Older) and the Flu." Flu.gov. US Department of Health and Human Services. 23 Jul 11.

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