The danger of flu and shingles
By Joel Wittnebel/Active Senior’s Digest
As the winter months roll in, there may be something more than just the cold lurking around the corner.
Flu season has officially begun for another year, and seniors who are looking at getting the flu shot to boost their immune system against the dangerous infection should also keep in mind that it’s also a good time to get protected against shingles.
During the 2015/2016 flu season, which generally runs from November to March, more than 5,300 people in Canada were hospitalized with the infection. In seniors, due to an aging immune system, the flu can pack a much more powerful punch.
According to Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer for the Province of Ontario, the immune system ages just like any other part of the body.
“As they age, the robustness of their immune system starts to wane,” he says. “The older the person, the less vigorous it is to respond.”
To help kickstart the body, the province recommends getting the flu shot, which can prime the immune system against the flu virus.
And for this coming season, it could be more important than ever.
Williams says the last two years have been relatively quiet in terms of the flu, but this year is shaping up to be different, and a new, more dangerous player has entered the game.
The majority of cases in recent years have been of the H1N1 flu virus, something many seniors have an immune memory of. However, a predominance of the H3N2 strain could cause an added danger to the elderly.
Unlike H1N1, the immune system seems to have a harder time remembering the H3N2 virus, therefore making it much harder to combat with a weakened system.
“H3N2 has always been a nastier one for seniors,” Williams says.
The flu can also pose further dangers for seniors after they’ve even successfully fought off the infection.
After being bed-ridden for a two to three week period, active seniors may get up when they’re feeling better and try to continue to do the same things they did before the sickness. However, there is a serious problem.
“In this time of illness and bedriddenness, there is a substantial loss of muscle mass,” Williams explains.
This loss of strength can either lead to falls or serious strain leading to heart attack or stroke.
To protect themselves, seniors can get the flu vaccine free of charge from pharmacies, public health units or your healthcare provider.
At the same time, seniors should ask about the shingles vaccine, which is currently free of charge for those ages between 65 and 70. Ontario is the first jurisdiction to offer this vaccine at no cost.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox and can lead to painful skin rashes and debilitating nerve pain that can cause permanent damage.
In the same manner of the flu, with an older immune system, seniors are once again more vulnerable to this infection.