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Swine Flu and the Elderly

Experts share insights on ways seniors can protect themselves against swine flu.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

What is it about swine flu that has people so nervous? Should seniors in particular be worried? To learn more, WebMD went to medical experts and got their answers to these and other questions about the 2009 H1N1 virus.

Why is swine flu a particular worry?

Swine flu is a novel form of the influenza virus, combining swine, human, and avian virus strains. Because it is new, people in general don't appear to have antibodies against it as they might against seasonal flu. That means potentially more people could get sick with this flu.

Are seniors particularly susceptible to swine flu?

H1N1 swine flu doesn't seem to be a big problem for seniors unless that person has a chronic underlying condition, says Thomas Yoshikawa, MD, professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Most H1N1 cases are occurring in younger people. "It appears that older persons, who have been exposed multiple times in their life time with various flu outbreaks, may have residual immunity of which some of it is against this H1N1 flu strain," Yoshikawa tells WebMD.

However, underlying health problems like heart and lung diseases or a compromised immune system "confers an increased risk of influenza, whether it's swine flu or another type of flu," says Sean X. Leng, MD, PhD, a geriatrician conducting research on influenza immunization in older adults and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Though healthy seniors haven't been particularly targeted by H1N1 swine flu, seasonal influenza remains a deadly risk for many, with roughly 36,000 people in the U.S. dying from flu-related causes every year. A yearly flu vaccination remains an important way to stay flu-free.

What steps can seniors take to protect themselves against swine flu?

The best step is to get vaccinated.

Aside from that, the most common ways of getting the flu are being exposed to people with the flu who are sneezing, coughing -- even breathing -- nearby, or by touching objects that were previously handled by a person with flu.

"I'm telling my patients that if someone in the immediate family or close contact has any flu-like symptoms ... they need to stay away from those people; those people also need to isolate themselves and seek care," says Leng. Once you have symptoms of the flu, you should contact your doctor, says Leng.

"Whenever possible, seniors should avoid anyone who might appear to have flu symptoms," advises Yoshikawa. "Washing your hands with disposable paper towels rather than shared cloth towels minimizes spread of the flu onto your hands and face."

Carrying alcohol-based hand gels and cleaning your hands whenever you go to public places may also help remove or kill the flu virus, Yoshikawa tells WebMD.

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