Swine Flu and the Elderly

Experts share insights on ways seniors can protect themselves against swine flu.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 13, 2010
4 min read

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.

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.

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.

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.

"If a senior comes down with symptoms compatible with a flu, they should see their doctor right away," Yoshikawa says. "Taking antivirals early in the course of the flu (preferably before all symptoms start but by 48 hours into the course of the infection) can reduce the severity of the disease." Antivirals can also help prevent flu and its complications.

The antivirals recommended as effective against H1N1 flu are oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). Tamiflu and Relenza are most effective if given within 48 hours of the first symptoms. But the drugs still benefit patients if given more than 48 hours after onset of symptoms.

There are always universal precautions to help prevent the flu, says Leng.

Additionally, in a retirement community setting, "if someone gets flu-like symptoms, I would suggest they stay in their own apartment, and if diagnosed they really need to be isolated." Yet sometimes a senior may not realize they have flu-like symptoms. In that case the caretaker may want to take the extra step and get that person to seek care if they have symptoms, suggests Leng.

And as a caregiver you need to protect your patients by staying home if you become ill and avoiding especially those at high risk for complications from influenza.

Yes they should, say the experts. The CDC recommends:

  • Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then throw the tissue away.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home if you get sick and limit your contact with others.
  • Get the H1N1 swine flu vaccine.

If you do get infected by the H1N1 virus, you may be sick for a week or longer, reports the CDC. They suggest staying home from work for at least seven days after symptoms begin, or until you've been symptom-free for 24 hours. If you experience any of these signs while having the flu, the CDC suggests seeking urgent medical care:

  • Problems breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough