A Guide to the Flu for Seniors

It may not yet feel like fall around the North Texas area, but unfortunately, the flu virus doesn’t pay much attention to our local weather forecasts. Every year, flu season kicks off about midway through the fall school semester and continues until late spring.

For most Texans, getting the flu can be miserable and is something to avoid, but doesn’t usually lead to long-term issues. Seniors and other at-risk adults should be aware that the flu can pose more serious health risks if not treated quickly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that adults 65+ and people with health conditions/diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes are at additional risk for complications. Flu-related complications include pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections, and can also include the worsening of chronic health conditions like asthma and chronic congestive heart failure. Serious complications can lead to hospitalizations and sometimes death.

Rebekah Mulligan, M.D., an internal and geriatric medicine specialist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southlake and Texas Health Adult Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says the most important thing to know when it comes to flu prevention is something simple.

“Get your flu shot,” she recommends. “I already received mine back in September. It is the best way to prevent the spread of this disease. Other best practices are to wash your hands often, cover your cough, avoid sick individuals, and avoid public spaces when you have a fever and flu-like illnesses to prevent the spread of flu.”

Flu is often known to come on quickly and bring symptoms including:

  • Fever and/or feeling feverish/chills (not everyone will develop a fever)
  • Cough and/or sore throat
  • Runny and/or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea (more common in children than adults)

While it may be tempting to ride out the flu at home, Mulligan says a prompt visit to the doctor for a flu test is the best course of action, especially for seniors or other at-risk adults.

“Try to see your doctor immediately if you think you have the flu,” she says. “Medications for the flu can only be given within the first 72 hours of illness.”

Flu viruses constantly change, meaning the flu vaccine is reviewed and updated every year. Vaccines protect against the three or four viruses researchers expect to be the most common in the upcoming season. While projections may change as the flu season progresses, vaccine manufacturers are estimating they will provide 162-169 million doses for the American public during the 2019-2020 flu season.

Mulligan says while we don’t have good answers about what the upcoming flu season will be like, the CDC does provide weekly updates once flu cases start popping up around the country.

“The CDC has an influenza website with weekly updates on the activity of the influenza virus in the U.S., which can be found at www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly,” she says. “We really don’t have any information on what to expect from the current flu season, but according to the World Health Organization, seasonal influenza A virus has accounted for the majority of cases worldwide.

“We have no information on the effectiveness of the current vaccine yet. However, we do know that the flu vaccine can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school due to flu, as well as preventing flu-related hospitalizations.”

In addition to national statistics, the Texas Department of Health Services provides updates on flu cases across the state online at: https://www.dshs.state.tx.us/idcu/disease/influenza/surveillance/

Remember, the most important thing you can do before flu season starts is to get your annual vaccine, and then practice smart hygiene during flu season and stay away from people known to have the flu. If you suspect you have the flu, be sure to see your doctor within the first 72 hours.

In need of a primary care physician? Head to TexasHealth.org/provider to find the closest physician near you this cold and flu season, and every season. 

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