Cooler temperatures throughout most of the country tell us it’s time to bring out the hot chocolate, winter boots and sweaters. They also indicate the start of the cold and flu season.
If you’re one of many Americans who take a "que sera, sera" approach or think they’re somehow immune to these infectious diseases, you may be putting yourself at risk for serious illness.
Older adults often overlook the complications that can result from colds and flu. After all, you’ve made it through numerous childhood colds and bouts of flu with no ill effects. But as you age, you face a higher risk for developing conditions such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Your risk for complications also rises if you:
- Have a chronic health condition such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or lung disease
- Are dealing with psychological stress
- Have an impaired immune system
- Are being treated for cancer
- Live in a nursing home or other institution
- Work in a healthcare facility
Immunizations You Need
If you’re not adequately immunized, you could be susceptible to preventable illness. Medical experts generally recommend these immunizations for healthy adults over 50, but speak with your doctor about your risk factors and specific needs.
- Tetanus, diphtheria (td)
- Pneumococcal polysaccharide (pneumonia) (after age 65)
- Pertussis (whooping cough)
Fighting the Flu
Influenza is a viral infection of the nose, throat, bronchial tubes and lungs. New strains appear each year, so scientists reformulate the vaccine to fight the three strains expected to be most active.
Signs of the flu include:
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Fever of 101 degrees or more
- Body aches
- Appetite loss
- Weakness and fatigue
See your doctor right away if you have flu symptoms, especially if you have any risk factors. Taking a prescription antiviral medication within 48 hours of the symptoms’ onset may help.
Sound nutrition and regular exercise can strengthen your immune system to fight infectious diseases, and regular hand washing can keep germs at bay. Annual flu shots will give you added protection and are recommended for adults over age 50 or at high risk and for those who may transmit influenza to someone at high risk.
A cold may seem like a harmless malady, more of a nuisance than anything. In fact, most adults have two to four colds a year. But colds can lead to more serious infections such as sinusitis, strep throat, bronchitis and pneumonia.
A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Symptoms include:
- Drippy nose
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy or sore throat
- Watery eyes
- Mild headache
- Body aches
- Slight fever (less than 102 degrees)
- Mild fatigue
See your doctor if your cold doesn’t get better within seven to 10 days, if your symptoms worsen, or if you have a chronic respiratory condition. Over-the-counter cold medications may provide some relief. Antibiotics won’t help.
To prevent coming down with a cold, avoid close contact with anyone who has a cold, wash your hands frequently, and don’t share drinking glasses with others. Ask family members suffering from colds to sneeze or cough into tissues and throw them out.
Adults over 65 have an increased risk of pneumonia, a lung infection and inflammation that often stems from a cold or the flu. More than 50 kinds of pneumonia exist, caused by bacteria, viruses (including the same ones that can cause flu), fungi and other organisms.
Symptoms of pneumonia vary and include:
- Chest pain
- Muscle pain
Prompt treatment can minimize complications, so see your doctor if you suspect you have more than a cold or the flu. That’s especially important for adults over 65, for whom pneumonia can be life threatening. Depending on the type of pneumonia you have, your physician may prescribe antibiotics or antivirals and instruct you to rest until you’ve recovered.
Getting an annual flu shot can help prevent pneumonia. In addition, a vaccination against pneumococcal pneumonia is recommended for adults over 65 and anyone who has a chronic illness or weakened immune system or who has had their spleen removed. Keep your immune system strong with a healthy diet, regular exercise and stress management. Get in the habit of regular hand washing and, if you smoke, quit, since smoking makes your lungs more vulnerable to respiratory infection.
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