Flu season is a tenuous time for seniors. It can lead to hospitalizations and other problems, such as pneumonia. In addition, flu is highly contagious.

One common problem with flu is that it is often confused with gastrointestinal flu. Respiratory flu, as it is called among non-healthcare workers, is a condition that causes mainly lung symptoms and congestion. The gastrointestinal flu, also known as gastroenteritis, is the condition that causes vomiting and diarrhea, usually lasting 24 to 48 hours. 

Even if you get a flu shot, you are still at risk for gastroenteritis but your risk of the respiratory flu is greatly reduced. It is important to keep the two separate because they are different conditions, though they share similar names.


Common symptoms include:

●      Cough

●      Fever

●      Sore throat

●      Stuffy nose

●      Muscle aches

●      Headaches

●      Malaise

●      Fatigue

●      Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, mostly in children

●      Chills and tiredness

The symptoms of the flu are very similar to those of the common cold. It is very easy to confuse one for the other although medical professionals are usually able to perform a test to determine the presence of flu. The flu is generally more severe and less likely to go away. Fever is a common symptom and it generally runs over 100 degrees. However, not all patients with the flu have a fever though they may be feverish. This means that they have the chills and general fatigue that would come with a high fever but not necessarily have a high temperature reading.


The flu can be treated with or without medications. A combination of these methods will yield the best results. The first action you should take is to get a great deal of rest.  This means lying in bed, under the covers, and not moving around too much for a few days. You, or the resident you are caring for, can drink clear fluids to stay hydrated. One trick is to gargle with salt water, as it should help throat pain. Use a lot of blankets to stave off the chills.

Medications can help, too. Decongestants and anti-coughing medications are great for controlling symptoms. Acetaminophen (or Tylenol) is helpful in lowering fevers.  The problem with over-the-counter medications is that many of them have the same medications in them. The solution is to carefully read medication labels to ensure you are only taking or administering one dose of the recommended medication.

Another possibility is an anti-viral, such as Tamiflu.  Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this medication is best when taken within two days of symptoms starting.  It helps to reduce the severity of the symptoms and the condition doesn’t last as long.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone over six years of age get a flu shot every year whenever they become available. Usually, the latest flu shot will be available in the fall and it protects against the strains that are active for that season. It is especially important for the elderly and those with chronic health conditions to get the flu shot.  This is to protect those populations from suffering the complications that can arise from a simple flu. Bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, are possible and dangerous in seniors.

Seniors and their caregivers can take steps to prevent the flu from spreading. Here’s what you can do: 

●      Hand washing

●      Keep healthy people away from sick ones

●      Anti-viral, such as Tamiflu, if exposure has occurred (This means that the medication will help to prevent the possible manifestation of symptoms in people who have been close to flu patients.)

Using these methods, the flu can usually be contained and treated for the benefit of both the seniors and their caregivers.

Lynda Lampert, RN, is a guest writer for Presbyterian Home of Maryland. In addition to working in an acute care environment for a number of years, she has extensive experience in long-term care as an activities aide, a certified nursing assistant, and as a registered nurse.