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How Seniors Can Protect and Boost Their Immune System

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If it seems like the older you get, the easier it is to catch the flu or have a bout of pneumonia, your suspicions are correct. During the 2018-2019 flu season, the number of seniors aged 65 and older hospitalized was four times as many as those between ages 18 and 49. And by the end of the flu season, an estimated 25,555 seniors passed away as compared to an estimated 2,450 deaths in the 18 to 49 age group. 

There isn’t a specific age when immunity declines, but as we climb up in years, we have fewer immune cells. Not only is our body more easily overwhelmed by harmful germs, but those cells also take longer to react to invaders because they don’t communicate with each other as effectively. And when you do get sick, fewer white blood cells mean slower recovery from illnesses, infections, and injuries. 

If you’re a senior worried about getting sick this flu season or another illness, know there’s much you can do to strengthen your immune system to help it fight off sickness. Below you’ll find what you can do to protect and boost your immune system, and what caretakers can do to help.

 

 

The Most Troubling Viruses and Illnesses Seniors Need to Watch For

 
While anyone can get common infections like influenza, the effects are more severe in seniors over 64. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) reports one-third of people 65 and older die from an infectious disease. They can be harder to diagnose in seniors or lead to poor health, chronic discomfort, and an increased risk of hospitalizations. The sooner we recognize changes in our health, the easier it is to fight off illnesses. 
 
Here are the top five illnesses seniors need to be mindful of:

1. Coronavirus

The coronavirus is sweeping the world and has become a pandemic. Also called COVID-19, the CDC says that current information suggests the virus’s symptoms are mild, with serious illness occurring in only 16 percent of cases. But as with other types of flu, the risk is significantly higher for seniors 65 and older. Eighty percent of coronavirus-related deaths occurred in seniors within that age group. However, people of any age with severe or chronic medical conditions, like lung disease, heart disease, asthma, and diabetes, are also at higher risk of developing serious illness with coronavirus infections. 

The CDC states symptoms appear two to 14 days after exposure, and may include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. 

If you get sick with COVID-19:

  • Maintain your distance from others much as possible
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue. Then throw that tissue away in a lined trash can. Immediately wash or sanitize your hands. 
  • Wash your hands often. Use hand sanitizers when you can’t.
  • Disinfect surfaces.
  • Postpone or cancel appointments. If you cannot postpone a medical appointment, call ahead so that the office can take proper precautions.
  • Use a face mask when around other people. Improvise with a scarf or other material if no face masks are available.

Seek medical attention immediately if you have trouble breathing, feel persistent chest pain or pressure, have a bluish face or lips, have new confusion or difficulty getting up, or experience any other new, concerning, or severe symptoms. Call your doctor or emergency room first before going and inform them of your symptoms. They’ll tell you what to do next. 
 

2. Elderly Influenza

Influenza is especially deadly for seniors because one of its complications is pneumonia. In fact, the flu combined with pneumonia is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the latest report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It claimed 55,672 people in 2017, 84% of whom were seniors 65 and older. Weakened immune systems are a contributing factor, but so is how easily influenza is spread. A simple cough or sneeze can infect everyone within six to eight feet of its path. In closed environments like nursing homes, germs can linger for exceptionally long periods. 

Fever, coughs, fatigue, and chills are all common symptoms of influenza. In general, flu symptoms are similar to that of a cold but are much more intense. Doctors recommend yearly flu shots to protect against infection. If you already have the flu, starting antiviral medications within the first 48 hours of the first flu sign can decrease the flu’s severity and length.
 

3. Pneumonia

Viruses, bacteria, or fungi cause pneumonia. Typically, flu-associated pneumonia is viral, although post-flu complications can bring on bacterial pneumonia. Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common bacteria to cause pneumonia, and usually occurs when something weakens the body, like illnesses, impaired immunity, and surgery. All types of pneumonia can be fatal in seniors if left untreated.

Signs to look for include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Blue lips or fingernails from decreased blood-oxygen levels
  • Yellow, green, or bloody phlegm that comes up while coughing

To make the diagnosis, doctors might do a chest X-ray and run blood tests. To treat bacterial pneumonia, physicians may prescribe antibiotics. To treat viral infections, the most common course of action is antiviral medications. Be sure to finish the bottle as directed because pneumonia can come back if you stop too soon. 
 
 
toilet

 

4. Urinary Tract Infections

The AAFP reports urinary tract infections (UTIs) as the most common bacterial infection in older populations. Women are more likely to get them than men, but men increase their risk if they use catheters or have diabetes. Kidney stones, urine retention, surgery close to the bladder, and enlarged prostates are also risk factors. 

Some people experience discomfort, frequent urges to pee, burning sensations when urinating, or a change in the urine’s appearance to cloudy, dark, or bloody. But sometimes, seniors don’t have any of these hallmark symptoms because their immune system isn’t strong enough to create a noticeable response. 

Instead, caretakers should take note of dementia symptoms. The National Institutes of Health states many older adults are misdiagnosed as being in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease when, in reality, they have a UTI. Other hidden warning signs that may indicate an infection are: 

  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Behavioral changes
  • Agitation
  • Dizziness
  • Urinary incontinence

Drinking plenty of water helps prevent UTIs. If they occur, they aren’t difficult to treat in the early stages and usually require only a course of antibiotics. Undiagnosed infections can spread from the bladder to the kidneys, where the bacteria may cause permanent damage. In seniors with already reduced kidney function, this could cause kidney failure. 
 

5. Gastrointestinal Infections

Seniors are more likely to develop gastrointestinal infections because of gut flora imbalances and age-related digestive issues. Infections are usually because of food poisoning, viruses, or bacteria. In settings like nursing homes or assisted living facilities, illnesses like the stomach flu can quickly spread among residents and lead to hospitalizations or death. Part of the reason why is because symptoms like diarrhea can cause severe dehydration. 

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is also frequently the culprit in gastrointestinal bacterial infections in adults over the age of 64, who account for more than 80 percent of deaths caused by the bacteria. Physicians will prescribe antibiotics to get rid of C. diff in almost all cases, except for when it’s triggered by antibiotic use. 

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), another common bacteria responsible for peptic ulcers, abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite, and more, is also treated with antibiotics. 
 
 
nurse and senior

 

Don’t Give Your Immune System a Reason to Fight

 
There’s much you can do to strengthen your immune system so that it can fight off harmful germs and bacteria that can make you very ill. But why take a toll on your immune system by making it fight invaders when you can prevent yourself from catching them in the first place? 

Here are some precautions you can take to prevent exposure to illness-causing germs. 
 

Staying Protected from the Coronavirus

The best way to prevent catching COVID-19 is to avoid exposure. The CDC recommends high-risk people:

  • Practice social distancing by keeping away from others in public
  • Keep at least a six-foot distance from others who are sick
  • Avoid crowds
  • Stay home as much as possible
  • Avoid all cruise and non-essential air travel
  • Wash your hands and disinfect surfaces often

Also, consider stocking up on supplies to avoid outdoor trips. Many grocery stores are offering morning senior shopping hours to reduce the risk of exposure and have key items available for purchase.
 

Avoid Crowded Places

One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from catching illnesses is to avoid crowded places, especially during virus or bacterial outbreaks and flu season. Germs can live in the air for hours or on surfaces for a full day. And because coughs and sneezes travel between six to eight feet, it’s easy to breathe in contaminated air or touch an infected surface. Being in a crowd is particularly problematic in enclosed spaces where fresh air doesn’t circulate. 
 

Keep Hands Away From the Face

Another crucial action to avoid catching whatever is going around is to keep your hands away from your face. The eyes, nose, and mouth act as gateways into our bodies, and that’s typically how germs enter us. We were most likely the ones who brought them to the entry point when we rubbed our eyes with our fingers, scratched our noses, our wiped our mouths. 
 
 
wash hands
 

Wash Hands Frequently

Frequent hand washings are the secret weapon in avoiding transferring germs from your hand to your face. The CDC recommends washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, including cleaning under your fingernails. If there’s no water near you or if you find hand washings to be inconvenient, use gel sanitizers or alcohol-based hand wipes. Keep rubbing the gel until it’s dry as germs and bacteria are killed on evaporation. 
 

Brush and Floss Your Teeth

You may be surprised to read that good dental hygiene plays a critical role in your overall health. Some studies suggest oral bacteria can travel from the mouth to the heart and cause serious cardiovascular disease, especially if you have artificial heart valves. Dentists recommend brushing teeth twice a day and flossing once a day. If you have healthy teeth and gums, once a year in-office cleanings may be enough. Otherwise, twice-yearly or more frequent cleanings are ideal.  
 
 
flu shot

 

What You Can Do to Strengthen Your Immune System

 
If you want to enhance your system, here’s what the experts recommend: 

Get Annual Flu Shots

The CDC says the best way to prevent the flu is to get yearly flu shots. They’re designed to protect against the most prominent strains that season. Even if the leading flu strain is the same as years prior, it’s still crucial to get revaccinated because immunity wanes throughout the year. People 65 and older may not respond as well to the flu shot as younger people. Nevertheless, studies consistently show that influenza vaccines are effective at reducing the number of hospitalization and medical visits associated with the flu. 
 

Don’t Neglect Your Pneumococcal Vaccines

Pneumococcal vaccines protect against 23 strains of bacterial pneumonia. The CDC recommends seniors get the first dose in their 50s and the second when they turn 65. To maintain immunity, you should get a new dose every five years. 
 
 
fruit plate and bowl

 

Treat Nutrition Deficiencies and Eat a Balanced, Healthy Diet

Many seniors have poor nutrition that is exacerbated by medications. Prescription antacids like omeprazole, for instance, cause low levels of magnesium. Magnesium is a critical nutrient in regulating blood sugar and blood pressure levels, muscle and nerve function, and more. It’s responsible for over 300 chemical reactions in the body and is crucial to maintaining overall health and equipping your body to fight against disease. 

Speak to your doctor to see what nutritional deficiencies your medications can cause and how to remedy them. Eating three meals a day with a focus on wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, and other unprocessed foods will keep your health and immunity in the best shape. 
 

Catch More Zs

Sleep is one of the most underrated ways to boost the immune system. Unfortunately, the older we get, the harder it seems to get a good night’s rest. Medications, health conditions, and changing circadian rhythms may be to blame. Following a consistent sleep schedule and having a relaxing bedtime routine can cue your body to call it a night. Exercise also helps with conditions like sleep apnea, insomnia, and depression. Be sure to visit your doctor before starting a new exercise program. 
 
 
man with tennis ball in hand
 

How Caretakers Can Help Protect Loved Ones

 
Caretakers know their loved one’s limitations and can help them make sure loved ones are doing everything possible to keep from getting sick. Caretakers also play a critical role in encouraging and motivating seniors to do what’s necessary to keep them healthy. And many caregivers act as gatekeepers and screen visitors before entering the home to make sure they aren’t sick. It’s much better to ask someone to come back another time than risk having an aging parent fall sick. 

Despite taking all the precautions, sometimes immune systems still succumb to sickness because of medications, other illnesses, and weakened immune systems. If your aging parent becomes ill, bring them to the doctor as soon as you notice any symptoms. 

If your elderly parent has the flu, seek medical attention immediately if you see danger signs like:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Violent or continual vomiting
  • Sudden onset of dizziness
  • Worsening of other medical conditions
  • Dehydration 

If your loved one is dehydrated, you’ll notice reduced skin elasticity, dark urine, inability to urinate, dry mouth, headaches, and nausea or vomiting. 

Caretakers can also be on the lookout for signs of pneumonia. Here’s what they may notice: 

 

older man headache
 
Viral pneumonia: Headache, fever, initial dry cough that produces yellow or green mucus after one to two days, fatigue, and muscle pain

Bacterial pneumonia: Sudden onset of stabbing chest pains, shortness of breath, shaking chills, coughs that produce thick yellow or green phlegm, and high fever

Caretakers also play a critical role in helping aging loved ones recover from illnesses. If your loved one is sick, help with home care, and ensure they get enough rest, take medications at appropriate times, get adequate nutrition, and don’t overexert themselves. If the flu makes it difficult to breathe, caretakers can provide relief by helping their parent sit up. Those sick with the flu should also avoid alcohol and cigarettes as they may slow down recovery times. 

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