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Influenza (Seasonal Flu) Information for the Elderly

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Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It is common during seasonal changes of fall and winter. Influenza epidemics and pandemics have caused a significant number of deaths in the past. This is mainly because the influenza viruses mutate and change the structure of their proteins frequently. The highest risk group in these instances are babies and the elderly.

The frequent change in the structure of key proteins allows these viruses to evade the immune system and cause sickness even in individuals who have been previously exposed to the influenza virus and carry antibodies against it. All individuals are susceptible to influenza during pandemics. However, vaccines are available to combat such widespread epidemics and the elderly are often advised to take the vaccine prior to the flu season.

Signs and Symptoms

Individuals infected with influenza virus start showing symptoms after 1 to 4 days of infection. The common symptoms of influenza include the following :

  • Chills and fever that may last for as long as 5 days
  • Muscle and joint aches, especially involving the back and the legs
  • Coryza or “cold” symptoms like secretions from nose, sore throat, red eyes, and cough
  • Headache is a common symptom and is usually associated with photophobia (intolerance to visible light)
  • Malaise (uneasiness), fatigue and drowsiness
  • Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain may also be present in some types of influenza

The symptoms usually persist for days or even weeks. In some cases, influenza could lead to complications such as pneumonia, inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), inflammation of the heart muscles (myocarditis), and a generalized destruction of muscles. For the elderly, the symptoms may be much more intense and last longer as the age-related decline in immunity, chronic medication and diseases hampers the body’s ability to overcome the influenza virus.

Causes of the Flu and the Influenza Virus

The flu is caused by influenza viruses. Influenza viruses are classified into three major types: A, B, and C. This distinction between influenza viruses is based upon the differences in the proteins that make up these viruses. Influenza A causes the most severe form of the illness and can be lethal.

Influenza viruses spread via airborne droplets (that result from sneezing), close personal contact with infected persons, and through contact with objects contaminated by these viruses.

Children below 4 years of age, adults above 65 years of age, individuals with chronic medical disorders and compromised immune systems, and pregnant women are more susceptible to developing complications from the flu.

Treating and Preventing the Flu

Treatment for influenza is mostly symptomatic – aimed at alleviating the symptoms rather than killing the virus. Complete bed rest and intake of adequate fluids is recommended in all cases. Most patients recover fully within a week or two.

Antiviral drugs (like oseltamivir, zanamivir, amantadine, rimantadine) can help by decreasing the duration and severity of the symptoms. These should be started within a day or two of the onset of flu symptoms. The effectiveness of the drugs depends on the specific virus that is causing the illness. Drug resistance is common because of the propensity of the influenza virus to change its proteins. Antiviral drugs are mostly prescribed for patients in the high-risk group who can develop severe complications upon infection with influenza virus.

Antibiotics may be given to treat secondary bacterial infections that cause severe complications. Annual influenza vaccinations are a good way to maintain general immunity in the population and prevent influenza epidemics. Keeping healthy with a balanced diet and a proper lifestyle is one of the most effective ways of avoiding the flu or at least overcoming it very quickly without complications.


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