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Q&A: “How can caregivers prevent and treat flu in the elderly?”

iStockphoto | ThinkStock

iStockphoto | ThinkStock

It’s flu season and seniors over 65 are particularly susceptible. Why? Blame the weakened immune system found in many elderly. A particularly nasty bout with the flu could even result in death. According to Flu.gov, 90 percent of flu-related deaths and more than half of flu-related hospitalizations occur in people age 65 and older.

More than 6.5 million people who would have gotten sick during the 2012-2013 flu season didn’t because they got a flu shot, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The report also asserts that an estimated 79,000 hospitalizations from influenza were averted thanks to the vaccination.

In addition to receiving the flu vaccine, there are other everyday steps you can take to protect your patients (and yourself!) from the flu:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub. Antibacterial soap DOES NOT offer any extra protection.
  • Avoid the spread of germs by refraining from touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Build up the immune system with good health habits. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy food.
  • Watch your stress level. This is particularly true for caregivers. Stress—especially chronic stress—increases your risk of disease.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Influenza, left untreated, could develop into pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. Pneumonia is the fifth overall cause of death among seniors. While sick, seniors will need support from a caregiver.

It looks like the flu if there’s the following:

  • A 100-degree or higher fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with the flu has a fever)
  • A cough and/or sore throat
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches and/or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue

Ok, we’ve got it—so what treatment is there for a senior with the flu?

Flu.gov suggests getting immediate emergency medical attention if the following is present:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Purple or blue discoloration of the lips
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough

If the flu is serious enough, a doctor may provide antiviral medication. Otherwise, the course of action for flu symptom treatment without medication would include:

  • Rest, rest and more rest
  • Drinking clear fluids like water, broth, or electrolyte beverages to prevent dehydration
  • Reducing the heat of a fever by placing a cool, damp washcloth on the forehead, arms, and legs
  • Placing a humidifier in the room to make breathing easier
  • Covering up with a warm blanket

Caregivers should go along with their senior client to get a flu shot. They should also make sure they take good care of themselves during flu season, so they can better take care of their seniors.

Caregiverlist.com is the nation’s online destination dedicated to connecting seniors with quality senior care choices. Caregiverlist.com helps seniors and their loved ones define care needs, understand the many caregiving options and costs and connect to senior home care agencies that meet Caregiverlist.com’s checklist of quality standards. Caregiverlist.com is also a leading caregiving career and recruitment resource. Visit www.Caregiverlist.com.

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