Healthy Aging

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The Flu Is After You: What to Do?

We all know the statistics, flu is a rapidly spreading and particularly virulent virus that seeks out those of us over 65.  It annually affects between 5 and 20 percent of Americans each year, and about 200,000 people will require hospitalization by it.  We have already written this year about the most important strategy to keep the flu away and that is to take the vaccine.  It is not too late, if you haven't had your flu shot, but time is running out.  However, some of us who have had the flu shot can still contract the flu if the virus strain is enough different from the vaccine.  In other words, the vaccine is not 100 percent effective every year in everyone.  An then there are those who failed to get the vaccine - you are at a real risk!

Flu strikes from mid fall to as late as May and peaks in January and February, about the time you are reading this.  Influenza actually kills about 30,000 people a year and those of us over 65 are in one of the high risk groups because as we age our immunity is not as good at fighting the virus as it is in younger people.  Since we are at the time of the peak flu season, the rest of this report is on making the diagnosis and what treatments to take to minimize the effects.

Do I Have the Flu?

The flu is one of those things that is easy to diagnose, you know if you have the flu if you have those symptoms listed to the right.  Although these symptoms are often present with many illnesses when they are all together in one constellation, you probably have the flu.  It is more sudden in onset and severe than the common cold, although many of the symptoms are similar.  The fever and myalgia differentiate the flu from the cold.  Since the flu is potentially deadly in the elderly, it is important to recognize it early.

You and the Flu?

When one has the flu, you really do feel sick and this is a good thing.  It is important to stay home (not to expose yourself to others and spread the flu) and to allow your body to mobilize its immune defenses best while you rest and sleep as much as possible.  Remember that you are a virus vector for about a week from the onset of symptoms, meaning you can spread the virus to others for about the first week after coming down with flu. 

Flu Treatments:

  • Call your doctor immediately (don't delay, a visit may be required)
  • Follow the physician's recommendations - fill any prescriptions
  • Rest/sleep as much as possible
  • Take plenty of fluids (be sure urine stays light yellow or clear)
  • Use over the counter medications, in consultation with your physician:
    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) for fever and myalgia
    • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for fever and myalgia
    • Antihistamines (Benadryl, Nyquil)
    • Decongestants (pseudophedrine) as in Nyquil
    • Decongestant nasal spray (Afrin)
    • Cough Suppressant (Nyquil)
  • Monitor temperature and treat fever
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Cover mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing
  • Wash hands regularly

Most people survive the flu at home and do not need to visit a doctor, but the physician should be notified immediately that you have what you think is the flu.  Your physician may prescribe antiviral medicines if you report the flu within 48 hours of contracting it.  Older people with known immunosuppression (diseases or drugs known to reduce your body's ability to fight viruses and bacteria) should probably receive the anti-viral medications from their doctors.  People with some chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease are at greater risk for complications and your physician will advise you regarding this.

There are a great variety of over the counter medicines used to treat the symptoms of the flu.  The most common ones are listed above.  These over the counter medicines should be used as directed by your doctor, the pharmacist and by the directions on the medicines.  Antihistamines will make you drowsy and can lead to urinary retention in older men with large prostates, but in moderation these medicines are safe and effective.  A popular elixir is Vick's Nyquil that has a combination of the four separate ingredients listed above.  But whole rows of today's pharmacies are dedicated to cold and flu over the counter medications.  The last two "treatments" listed above are aimed at keeping you from spreading your virus to others, and are a form of preventive medicine for those with whom you associate.  Most people recover from the flu in one to two weeks, but a dry cough may persist for three or four weeks.

Complications of the flu include sinus, ear and lung infections with bacteria that require treatment by your physician.  Pneumonia (lung infection) is the most deadly and manifests with a productive cough (thick yellow to yellow-green sputum) and fever.  These infections all require a visit to the doctor for prompt and appropriate treatment.

The bottom line is now is the time for peak influenza outbreaks, and if you get it, you need to alert your physician and aggressively deal with the flu to prevent it lasting a long time and possibly leading to a more serious infection.

Flu vaccine

Health Information Library: Influenza

Podcast: Influenza - Signs, Symptoms and Self Care

Video: Influenza

Flu Symptoms:

  • Aches and pains in muscles (myalgias)
  • Fever (over 100 degrees F)
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Cough (usually dry - not productive, but persistent)
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Chills and sweats
  • Sore throat

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