It’s only January and it has already been a rough flu season. Across the country, hospitals and other health care facilities are mandating employees to get a flu shot. If they don’t, in some cases, they must wear a mask when around patients, and in others, they risk losing their jobs. The rationale is that it will help protect patients. “The primary goal of requiring annual flu shots,” explains Maine’s top epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears, “is to prevent health care workers from spreading the disease to high risk individuals. It’s important to remember that people start shedding the virus a day or two before they start getting sick. One strategy is if you get sick, you go home. The problem is you may have already spread the disease at that point.”
Whether or not a flu shot is mandatory, it is important to make sure employees are educated about the flu and how best to prevent it, especially if they are caring for people who are elderly. As we age, our immune systems tend to weaken, and the flu can hit us much harder than when we were younger. Advantage Home Care does not mandate flu shots for its caregivers, but encourages them to get one, and reimburses for it, if necessary.
How the flu is spread
If you have the flu you can spread it others who are about six feet away. If you cough or sneeze or even just talk, virus infected droplets can land in nearby people’s mouths or noses and be inhaled into their lungs. It’s also possible to touch a surface with flu viruses on it and get infected by then touching your own nose or mouth.
Flu prevention tips
If you haven’t had a flu shot yet, health experts say it’s not too late. As long as influenza viruses are in the air — and they certainly are — you can still benefit from the vaccine. It’s not a guarantee that you won’t get the flu, but it might decrease your odds or lessen your symptoms if you do get sick. This year, the flu shot is effective about 62 percent of the time, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Along with getting a flu shot there are several things you can do to help prevent the spread of flu viruses. They may seem like common sense, but it’s amazing how often we forget.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
- If you or your child gets sick, limit contact with others as much as possible. Stay home (or keep your child home) for at least 24 hours after fever is gone. Fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.
If you don’t feel well and aren’t sure if it’s the flu or just a cold, symptoms are similar, but with the flu they tend to be more severe.
- A 100oF 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
- Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea (most common in children)
Elderly individuals with flu-like symptoms should be evaluated by a health care provider right away because they are at higher risk for complications.
Possible complications in elderly people
- Worsening of pre-existing chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, emphysema, congestive heart failure (CHF)
- Severe aches and pains
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Because they are at increased risk of developing pneumonia, it’s recommended that people 65 and older also get a pneumonia shot. The symptoms of pneumonia can mimic a cold or the flu, and older people tend not to have a fever or other symptoms more common in younger people. Also, people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may not be able to tell you how they are feeling. It’s important to know what you’re dealing with so it can be treated properly
Pneumonia symptoms in elderly people
- A change in cognitive status (delirium, confusion, dementia) is a major sign of pneumonia in the elderly.
- Pain in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Shaking chills
- High fever (elderly people don’t always have a fever)
- Muscle aches and joint pain
- “Dusty” or purplish skin (a result of inadequate blood oxygen supply)
- Clammy skin that is cool to the touch
Treating the flu
Because of the risk of complications, if flu is suspected, it’s important to contact the older person’s health care provider, who may want to prescribe an antiviral medication. Other treatments include:
- Rest, rest, rest
- Try to sit up occasionally — it’s better for the lungs and may prevent pneumonia.
- Drink plenty of fluids to prevent becoming dehydrated, which is especially common in older people.
- Check with the doctor or pharmacist before buying a new over-the-counter cold or flu medicine to make sure it won’t interfere with prescription drugs or complicate existing medical conditions.
And please, if you’re taking care of someone who is ill, don’t forget to take care of yourself, so you won’t get sick too. If you haven’t already, consider getting a flu shot, and make sure to wash your hands — often.
Most of our tips came from flu.gov. Click on the graphic below to learn more.