Erica N. Campbell, MD is a board certified family physician with fellowship training in geriatric medicine. She sees patients at Inova Primary Care – Mark Center and Inova Primary Care – Old Town (both in Alexandria, VA). Dr. Campbell’s clinical interests include senior medicine, senior mental health disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and preventive disease care.
The winter months can bring slippery sidewalks and bone-chilling winds, not to mention colds and flu. These seasonal challenges can be particularly hazardous to older adults. But with some planning, seniors can avoid the winter blues. Follow these 8 steps to help seniors stay safe through the cold months.
- Get a flu shot. Older adults are especially vulnerable to dangerous complications of the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 71 and 81 percent of flu deaths occur in people over 65. Older adults are also most likely to be hospitalized for complications of the flu. Your best protection is to get an annual flu vaccine each fall. For seniors, we recommend a high-dose vaccine (called Fluzone) or a vaccine with an adjuvant (FLUAD), which helps create a stronger immune response.
- Get a pneumonia vaccine, too. While you’re at it, ask your doctor about a pneumococcal vaccine, which helps prevent certain strains of bacterial pneumonia. Pneumonia often develops as a complication of the flu, and it can be deadly.
- Wash up. Take steps to avoid germs, such as washing hands frequently and steering clear of people who are sick.
- Consider antivirals. Flu shots don’t protect against all strains of the illness. If you do develop signs of influenza, ask your physician about antiviral medications. These drugs can shorten the course of the illness and make symptoms less severe. They are most effective when taken in the first one to two days you are sick.
- Bundle up. Due to body changes that happen with aging, seniors are at greater risk of hypothermia, which occurs when your body temperature falls to a dangerously low level. To stay warm, keep your thermostat set to 68 degrees or higher, and dress snugly both inside and out. Frostbite can be a risk too, especially for people with heart disease or circulation problems. Keep areas like the face, fingers and toes covered warmly, and seek medical attention if you suspect you’re affected.
- Stay warm safely. Don’t heat your home by leaving the oven on, which can be a fire hazard. If you use a space heater, make sure to use it safely. Winter is a great time to make sure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. (Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas found in fumes from stoves, fireplaces and gas furnaces, and it can be deadly.) Many government agencies and associations offer assistance with your heating bill or weather-proofing. Contact your state and county agencies or utility companies to learn more.
- Step carefully. It’s easy to slip on snow or ice, and falls can cause serious injuries in older adults. To prevent a tumble, wear sturdy shoes or boots with nonskid soles. If you use a cane, make sure the rubber tip is in good condition. Keep walkways and steps clear with salt, and ask a family member or neighbor to help with shoveling.
- Stock up. Winter storms could keep you housebound. Make sure you always have enough food and medication on hand to last a week. If a blizzard hits, you’ll be glad you did.
At Inova, we’re committed to helping our older patients stay healthy and safe, no matter the season and whatever the weather. Learn more about our Senior Services.