The first months of the new year are in the thick of flu season. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show February is the peak month for flu activity, on average. While some may respond to the flu with a "ho-hum," there's no underestimating this illness. Not to be confused with the common cold — though the two have similar symptoms — the flu can have severe consequences.
While the flu is a concern for the entire population, children and seniors are most at risk for negative health effects. Whether living at home or in a community, retirees have to take it upon themselves to protect against the flu, and that responsibility doesn't end at getting a flu shot.
Here is some basic flu prevention knowledge everyone should have:
What is the flu?
Influenza — commonly known as the flu — is a respiratory illness caused by viral infection. The nose, throat and lungs are most affected by the flu, which can lead to mild or severe illness, even death. Healthy adults are most able to fight off the bug, but vulnerable groups like infants, seniors, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions have less fortified immune systems, and thus are in greater danger. That makes prevention key.
What do flu symptoms look like?
Prevention begins with being able to identify flu symptoms. Often the initial signs are a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing and/or congestion. More definitive indications of the flu include:
- Body aches/sensitive muscles
- Chills and sweats
- Persistent and painful cough
More severe cases may include vomiting and diarrhea.
What separates a cold from the flu?
The flu and the common winter cold share many symptoms. This can make it difficult to differentiate between the two. However, one tell-tale sign is an accelerated onset. While a cold may develop over time, the flu will appear much more rapidly, typically in 48 hours. In general the cold will take less of a toll on the body. If symptoms grow worse or continue, it's likely the flu is at fault.
Can the flu lead to other complications?
Yes — in fact, that's why the flu is such a serious issue for seniors and others with existing risk factors. The flu can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections, as well as worsen existing conditions like:
- Heart disease
How is the flu spread?
The flu is highly contagious, easily passed through the air and contact with infected surfaces. People who develop the flu can infect others in little time: sometimes a day before symptoms even present. Adults can spread the infection five to seven days after falling ill, though the most contagious period is between three and four days.
When someone with the flu coughs, sneezes or even talks, they release droplets containing the virus into the air. The same happens when an object is used, and the virus is transferred onto a handrail, a faucet, a door handle, a computer mouse — the list goes on. Inhaling those air droplets, or using an infected object, can expose people to flu germs. Contact with family, friends and others can also transmit the illness.
What can I do to prevent the flu?
Given all the harm the flu can do, it's important to take preventative steps against it. One of the first things to do is get a flu shot. Available at local pharmacies, municipal agencies and retirement communities, these inoculations are a must for seniors. Don't delay in getting one, because:
- The CDC recommends getting vaccinations throughout active flu season (including January and beyond).
- Flu strains evolve, and a vaccination that worked years ago won't last.
There are two different kinds of flu shots designed specifically for seniors. The High-Dose vaccine contains an upped dosage to promote stronger immune responses. The Adjuvanted vaccine contains an additive that aims to do the same and has only been available since 2016.
Besides getting a flu shot, there are other everyday actions to take to ward off the flu:
- Frequent handwashing, even if in the comfort of your own residence.
- Avoiding big crowds when the flu season is most active.
- Covering coughs and sneezes to avoid open contact and contamination.
What treatments are available?
If the flu does happen to strike, antiviral drugs are the best bets to fight against it. These pharmaceuticals need a doctor's prescription, so if you have a fever, feel achy and tired, are dehydrated or have other clear symptoms, visit a doctor as soon as possible. Treatments that start early on most effectively address the virus.
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