As the cooler months are fast approaching, so too is the cold and flu season.

For most this means curling up with a lemon tea and some tissues. For the more vulnerable populations, like the elderly, this can lead to serious health complications.

“The elderly are particularly vulnerable during cold and flu season,” says Dr Ryan Harvey, Deputy Clinical Director at House Call Doctor.

Sadly this age group bears the greatest burden of the flu season. Caring for elderly patients suffering with cold and flu symptoms requires attention to ensure the condition is not worsening.

Difference between the cold and flu

The common cold and influenza share many similarities. Both are viral respiratory infections however the symptoms and severity can differ.

Both can involve a sore throat, runny nose or nasal congestion, a cough and sneezing. However, Influenza, the flu, can also involve a productive cough, sever lethargy, a moderate to high fever, severe muscle aches, chills and in some cases nausea and vomiting.

“A cold typically comes on gradually and the recovery period can be up to a week,” says Dr Harvey. “Whereas a flu commonly comes on more suddenly and symptoms can be severe lasting up to two weeks.”

Why are the elderly more vulnerable to cold and flu?

People over the age of 65 are more vulnerable to greater health complications of a cold or flu. This is due to age-related weakening of the immune system.

“Death as a result of complications from the flu is more common in those over the age of 65,” says Dr Harvey.

Older populations are more at risk of developing serious complications from the initial symptoms of viral respiratory infections.

These include:

  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the heart (myocarditis)
  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • Inflammation of the muscle (myositis)
  • Severe dehydration

“Pneumonia is of particular concern for this age group,” says Dr Harvey. “Pneumonia is characterised by a productive cough. It is an infection where the lung tissue or alveoli fill with puss or fluid.”

This fluid interrupts the flow of oxygen to the blood stream and can be fatal if not treated early.

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How to prevent a cold/flu outbreak in aged care 

Preventing cold and flu outbreaks in an aged care facility is essential to maintaining the health of residents.

“The best way to prevent influenza is by receiving an annual flu vaccine,” says Dr Harvey.

“Flu vaccines are created to protect against specific strains of the virus which research indicates will be most common in the coming season,” says Dr Harvey.

It is important to receive a vaccine yearly as the virus’ are constantly evolving. These vaccines can be administered by a local General Practitioner and even at certain pharmacies.

“Viral infections are highly contagious,” says Dr Harvey. “Preventing elderly patients from illness requires diligence on behalf of workers and visitors.”

While it may be difficult to stay away from work when you feel illness coming on it is imperative to stopping the spread.

“The typical incubation period for influenza is one to four days. In some cases seemingly health adults can infect others before symptoms even appear and up to five to seven days after becoming sick,” says Dr Harvey.

Thus, being aware of your own body and knowing when you may be run down is essential.

“Visitors also play a vital role in preventing the spread of illness,” says Dr Harvey. “Anyone considering visiting relatives or friends in aged care should be aware of their own health and take precautions.”

What to do if you suspect it is worsening 

If you suspect the illness may be worsening it is important to seek advice from a doctor. Cold and flu related symptoms should begin to resolve within four days.

You should seek further medical advice if:

  • Symptoms are worsening after 3 – 4 days
  • They have trouble breathing
  • Develop a productive cough or change in cough
  • Symptoms improve and then suddenly worsen
  • They are experiencing mental confusion
  • They are experiencing severe dehydration
  • Pain not resolving or worsening

“Influenza can quickly evolve from bad to worse in patients over 65 so it is important to act quickly,” says Dr Harvey.

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