The flu season is here, and will be in full effect until May 2020. And those who have previously endured the symptoms that can include headaches, muscle aches, fevers, coughing, runny noses and weakness or fatigue, know having an influenza virus even for a short time is a miserable experience no matter what your age.
But it is especially nettlesome for seniors — even dangerous.
“The big news for seniors is, if you’re over 65 the likelihood of you getting the flu [at this time of year] is much higher,” said Dr. David Solarte, chief medical officer and medical director for the San Fernando Community Health Center.
Even more ominous: death tolls for seniors attributed to the flu have been spiking for several years.
More than 12,000 people ages 65 and older died in the 2017-18 flu season (October to May), and that was double the total from the previous season, according to data by the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And during the 2018-2019 flu season, the CDC estimates that up to 647,000 people were hospitalized, and 61,200 died because of the flu – 70 to 90 percent of whom were seniors.
Current death estimates are now as high as 21,000 seniors dying every year in California as a result of the flu.
“It’s a significant number, a lot of patients who could die from a preventable disease,” Solarte said.
The key word is “preventable,” the doctor said. And annual vaccinations are one of the main preventive measures.
“There’s two types of doses — a regular dose and a high dose. The high dose is specifically recommended for seniors when they’re over 60, because you have better immunity with the higher dose,” Solarte said.
It’s also advisable to get a flu shot as soon as possible. It can take the body up to two weeks to build up the antibodies that can help fight off the virus. If you become ill before getting a shot, it won’t do you any good.
Solarte went on to say that seniors should avoid areas if possible where people are already sick. The flu virus is highly contagious, and is usually transferred by contact, like shaking hands. But the virus can also travel through the air.
“If people are coughing and sneezing, they should be wearing a mask at all times. And washing their hands all the time, so you’re not spreading (the flu) with your hands,” Solarte said.
Healthy eating is another safeguard. The doctor suggests maintaining a healthy weight and eating lots of vitamin C-laden fruits and vegetables to build immunity.
“Being healthy in general can minimize the risk of you getting compromised by the flu,” Solarte said.
If you should become ill or feel some symptoms coming on, Solarte said, don’t waste any time in seeing a doctor.
“Don’t fool around with it. Get yourself checked out,” he said. “They have oral anti-viral medications that have been available for years. If you are a candidate for anti-virals, you should get them as early as possible, and not let [the flu] spread through your system and making it worse.”
Influenza is not the only thing seniors need to vaccinate against. As you get older, your immune system can diminish to where you become susceptible to other illnesses like pneumonia, tetanus, whooping cough, shingles, Hepatitis A and B (depending on certain medical conditions) — even measles and chicken pox if not exposed to them as a child — and they, too, have complications that can lead to long-term illness, hospitalization, and even death.
But the flu season is one that gets everyone’s attention regarding vaccinations, from infants to elders.
“The [flu] vaccines are based on what the CDC and other entities monitoring [contagious diseases and viruses across the world] recommend,” Solarte said. “If there is a bigger, more predominant strain, they’ll develop vaccines geared more toward the most common ones. Of course we can’t cover all of them because there are too many variations, and it’s different every year. In general, I would say it's 20-30% effective but it’s still better than not getting any vaccine at all.
“The key is still prevention. Nobody can prevent people from getting the flu 100%. But if you minimize your risk and make sure all those around you — your loved ones — are vaccinated, that protects grandma and grandpa as well. [Flu] is spread mainly by contact and through the air. And a lot of the ones that carry it are kids. You want to make sure all your kids are vaccinated to help yourself as well.”