This year’s bad flu season even worse for seniors

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Photo: David Lat/Freeimages

It’s the time of year when you can expect to hear a lot of coughing, sniffling and sneezing in public spaces. I just came back from the dentist and the receptionist sounded like she had flu symptoms. As my parents aged and developed health issues, I became more aware of the flu being a serious concern and not just a pesky ailment.

I’ve been reading a lot about how bad this year’s flu season is in the U.S. The flu deaths of children as well as young adults who were otherwise healthy have captured news headlines. While older people are more susceptible to experiencing severe symptoms when it comes to the flu, this year’s dominant strain is particularly of concern.

The H3N2 flu strain has reared its ugly head this season, STAT reported. Referring to H3N2 as the “problem child of seasonal flu,” this strain tends to strike seniors particularly hard, and usually leads to a spike in flu-related deaths. While it hasn’t been proven that H3N2 is actually more virulent than other strains, its ability to mutate has made it difficult to create a successful vaccine. Researchers also pose a theory of imprinting, in which a person’s ability to fight off the flu is associated with the person’s earliest experiences with the flu. Since H3N2 first emerged in 1968, our elder population would not have been exposed to the strain during childhood.

Another vulnerable population when it comes to the flu is people with dementia. It can be hard to enforce preventative measures such as washing hands when someone has memory issues. Those in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s may wander and pick up objects, or put things in their mouth.

In the last year of his life, my father was only partially verbal. If he was experiencing pain or any other symptom, I’m not certain he could have expressed it. Family caregivers are forced to look for secondary symptoms and related behaviors, such as a person’s appetite wanes because they don’t feel well. Certainly things like a cough or runny nose are obvious, but other symptoms may be more difficult to spot. Their throat hurts so they don’t want to consume food. Their nose is stuffy and they can’t smell food, impacting their appetite. They feel exhausted so they don’t want to get out of bed.

Treating flu symptoms of those with dementia can also be difficult. Anything that disrupts the routine can be a challenge for those with Alzheimer’s. My father was paranoid about taking pills or any kind of medication. Caregivers have to be creative when it comes to treatment. Don’t hesitate to take your loved one to the doctor if you are having difficulty managing symptoms. For those of you with loved ones in facility care, be extra vigilant in observing for flu symptoms when visiting, and make sure issues are addressed promptly by staff.

Here’s to hoping we can all stay healthy and avoid the flu this season.

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