9 Cold and Flu Illness Prevention Tips for Caregivers
Cold and flu season typically runs from October to March. During this time of year, the risk of catching a respiratory illness significantly increases, especially for people aged 65 and older. In fact, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that senior citizens account for between 70-85% of flu-related deaths.
As a caregiver, it's your job to keep your loved one safe, but during the winter, that presents additional challenges. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to prevent illness all season long.
Why are seniors more susceptible to the cold and flu?
Before we discuss prevention tips, it's important to understand why older adults are more likely to experience severe complications from the cold and flu. Several factors play a role, including:
A weakened immune system. As we age, our immune systems become less efficient. Over time, this results in our bodies producing fewer immune cells. What’s more, the immune system slowly loses its ability to detect and correct cell defects. When combined, these factors make it easier to get sick.
Underlying medical conditions. Many seniors have one or more chronic medical conditions, like thyroid disorders, diabetes, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These and other issues can exacerbate symptoms, and make individuals more susceptible to potentially serious complications like pneumonia.
What can caretakers do to prevent illness this flu season?
If you provide care for someone who's 65 and older, or immunocompromised, there are several things you can do to prevent the cold and flu this winter, including:
1) Get a flu shot (and a COVID-19 booster). The first and best line of defense against the seasonal flu is getting a flu shot. This rule applies to both caretakers and their care recipients. Though no vaccine is 100% effective, getting the flu shot can reduce the risk of severe complications like hospitalization or death. If you haven't already, now is also the perfect time to get your COVID-19 booster.
2) Stay home if you're sick. If you don't live with your care recipient, stay home if you develop a fever or any flu-related symptoms like a sore throat, runny nose, or cough. Even if you think they're due to allergies, it's better to be safe than sorry. Showing up to serve when you don't feel well is a disservice to those you're trying to help, even if you have good intentions.
3) Make time for self-care. Cold and flu season occur during one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year. To avoid burnout, it's crucial you make time for rest and relaxation.
Jenna Volpe, RDN, LD, CLT, a registered dietician and clinical herbalist who specializes in immunity and digestive health, recommends getting enough sleep.
"Getting sleep is something many caregivers tend to skimp on. Given the state of the world and the increased risk of getting a cold or flu virus this time of year, I can't emphasize the importance of sleep enough." Volpe continued, "Nourishing and supporting your body with the right combination of vitamins and minerals is also important, along with a balanced diet."
4) Avoid large crowds. After more than 18 months of pandemic restrictions, it's normal to want to socialize again. But for seniors and people with underlying medical conditions, big crowds can spell trouble.
"People who are immunocompromised may want to reduce, minimize, or avoid time spent in large crowds (such as a concert) or a place where it will be cold for a long period of time, as this can compromise their resilience against infections," Volpe said. "Activities involving close human interaction (such as dancing or nightclubs) also aren't ideal."
5) Wash your hands. Any time you leave the house to run errands, or come into contact with frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, railings, or elevator buttons, wash your hands before doing anything else. If there isn't easy access to soap and water, pack a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your purse, backpack, or first-aid kit.
6) Utilize telemedicine. Many senior citizens need to visit their doctor on a weekly or monthly basis. Instead of going to the office in person, try booking telemedicine appointments. This can help prevent exposure to viruses and bacteria while ensuring your loved one receives the health care they need.
7) Stay active. Regular exercise is one of the easiest ways to support your immune system. If your care recipient is able, encourage them to take walks, lift weights, or do chair yoga. If they're a wheelchair user, their doctor can recommend exercises that align with their current abilities.
8) Keep your hands away from your face. If you're concerned about your care recipient getting sick this winter, remind them to keep their hands away from their face.
Victoria Glass, MD, a practicing doctor who specializes in family medicine says, "Avoid touching your nose, mouth, and eyes, and if you have to sneeze, do it into your elbow." She continued, "Stop biting your nails and avoid coming into contact with frequently touched surfaces."
9) Keep your home clean. Aside from washing your hands and keeping touchpoints clean, make sure to disinfect your home. That's especially true in areas that tend to collect germs, like the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room. Throw any used tissues in the trash and if someone else in the house gets sick, have them stay in another area of the home to avoid contamination.
Are there any products that can assist caretakers this cold and flu season?
Yes. Here at Carewell, we carry various products that can assist you in disease prevention this cold and flu season. Below, we've listed some items you may want to add to your home health care kit:
If you need help finding something or have questions, contact us. Our friendly Care Specialists are here to help. You can reach them by calling (855) 855-1666 or sending an email to email@example.com.
Chad Birt is a freelance B2B and B2C medical writer who resides in Astoria, Oregon. When he isn't behind a keyboard, you can find him hiking, camping, or birdwatching with his wife Ella and their two dogs, Diane and Thoreau.