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Flu in older adults

Older adults and people with chronic diseases are at the greatest risk of problems associated with seasonal flu. Because older adults have reduced cough and gag reflexes, they often have increased respiratory problems associated with flu. In addition, older adults have weakened immune systems, which makes it harder for their bodies to fight flu complications, such as pneumonia.

 

How can older adults tell if they have the flu?

The symptoms of flu in older adults are pretty much the same as in other age groups. They may include:

  • High temperature (usual)
  • Headache (common)
  • Tiredness and fatigue (can last two or three weeks)
  • Extreme exhaustion (usual at the start of flu symptoms)
  • General aches and pain (often severe)
  • Chest discomfort, cough (common and can become severe)
  • Sore throat (sometimes)
  • Runny or stuffy nose (sometimes).

Do older adults get gastrointestinal problems with the flu?

Although more common in children, older adults sometimes suffer from stomach symptoms, like nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, with the seasonal flu. These symptoms seem to be more common with swine flu.  

What flu complications should older adults watch for?

Complications of flu in elderly people may include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Dehydration
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions, including lung conditions such as asthma, COPD and heart disease.

It's important to seek medical advice immediately if you have any of these flu complications. The sooner you start medical treatment, the faster it can work to treat the more serious symptoms.

How can older adults prevent getting the flu?

The best way to prevent the seasonal flu is to get an annual flu vaccination

Getting a seasonal flu jab is a very smart idea. It reduces hospital admission by about 70% and death by about 85% among older adults who do not live in nursing homes, according to the NHS. Among nursing home residents, the flu jab does the following:

  • Reduces the risk of hospitalisation by about 50%
  • Reduces the risk of pneumonia by about 60%
  • Reduces the risk of death by 75% to 80% .

Keep in mind that the seasonal flu viruses change each year, so older adults need to get a new flu jab each autumn.

If you are over the age of 65 you can also have the pneumococcal vaccine (also known as the "pneumo jab") to protect you against serious forms of pneumococcal infection. You won't need it each year and for most it's a one-off vaccination. Contact your GP for more information.

When should older adults get flu jabs to prevent flu and flu complications?

The flu season can begin as early as October and last until May. It's recommended that people get a flu jab in October or November so the body has a chance to build up immunity to the flu virus. It takes two weeks for the flu jab to start working. Still, if you miss the early flu jabs, getting a flu jab in December is wise.

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