Caregiving, Flu and You

By Jennifer Sellers

You’ve probably had the flu at least once in your life. You likely remember the aches, pains, fatigue and respiratory symptoms that kept you in bed for days. You know the flu is not a gentle virus, but did you know it could be deadly? That’s why a flu shot is a good idea for anyone caring for an Alzheimer’s patient.

Because of the demands of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient’s needs, caregivers are particularly prone to flu outbreaks. Studies have shown that caregivers who are under chronic (prolonged) stress may have a diminished immune response, which can potentially make them slower to heal after injury and more susceptible to common infections such as the flu. Even if you have had and recovered from the flu in the past, it’s important that you get a flu shot each fall or winter to prevent yourself from getting it again. By doing so you can help protect yourself and the people you come into contact with—including your family.

Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic gold medalist and winner of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars competition, knows the importance of flu protection—not just for herself, but also for her entire family. She has made it her mission to educate caregivers on the importance of flu shots. “When my daughter Emma was born, my doctor gave me a flu vaccination before I left the hospital to help prevent spreading this serious disease to my newborn infant,” she says. “Since then, I make sure we all get vaccinated every year. This includes my husband, my two daughters and even the grandparents in our family.”

Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi wants you to protect yourself and your family from the flu. If you’re a caregiver, the need to do so is even more important.

Understanding the Flu
This time of year, the flu and the common cold are lumped together a lot—cold and flu season, cold and flu medicines, cold and flu symptoms—but the flu and the common cold are not the same. While both illnesses are caused by viruses (the flu is caused by the contagious influenza virus), the symptoms and complications of the flu are much more severe. In fact, 36,000 people die from the flu each year, according to the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Symptoms of the flu aren’t pleasant—they include high fever, headache, muscle aches throughout the entire body, extreme fatigue, dry cough, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat and, as anyone who has ever had the flu will attest, general misery.

Occasionally someone with the flu will experience complications, which can include pneumonia, dehydration  and worsening of health problems such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes. Those in high-risk groups, such as senior citizens and people with compromised immune systems, are most likely to experience complications. Each year, more than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with flu complications, says the CDC.

Are You a Face of Influenza?
To raise awareness about the flu and the importance of getting vaccinated against it, Yamaguchi joined the Faces of Influenza campaign. The American Lung Association is using Faces of Influenza to educate high-risk groups about the need for flu vaccinations. The campaign’s website, www.lung.org/lung-disease/influenza/, features portraits of people, both famous and not-so-famous, who represent high-risk groups.

If you’re a caregiver of a person with Alzheimer’s disease, both of you are likely faces of influenza, meaning you are more likely to develop complications from the flu and you’re likely to spread the virus to other people who are at risk. Being over the age of 50 or having a chronic medical condition puts you at risk. And if you’re in contact with someone else who is over the age of 50 and has a chronic medical condition, you could be putting them at risk as well. That’s why flu shots for caregivers and their loved ones are very important.

Older Americans and the Flu

Ninety percent of flu deaths and more than half of hospitalizations due to flu occur in people 65 years and older. In addition, only 30 percent of people over the age of 65 get vaccinated against flu. That’s why the CDC is encouraging everyone in this age group to get flu shots every year.

If you’re a Baby Boomer, you’re not exempt. It is in your 50s and early 60s that you are likely to start developing chronic illnesses, which puts you at higher risk for flu complications.

Alzheimer’s caregivers are usually spouses or adult children, therefore most Alzheimer’s caregivers are over the age of 50 and should get an annual flu shot, says the CDC. “Flu is not to be taken lightly,” says Anne Schuchat, MD, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC. “People who do not get the flu vaccine are taking two risks: First, they risk a potentially serious case of the flu. And second, if they get sick, they risk passing it to family… Vaccination is the single best way to protect yourself and the people you love from influenza.”

Protecting your loved ones is at the heart of Yamaguchi’s message: “As a mother, I realize my whole family needs to be immunized, and that’s a responsibility that I take seriously.”

Caregiver Stress Could Lead to Flu Susceptibility
In managing the health and day-to-day needs of your loved one, you must not overlook your own health and well-being. Your health can suffer from the stress of round-the-clock responsibilities and the emotional toll of witnessing the disease’s devastating progression in a loved one. Be mindful of your physical, psychological and spiritual needs. By taking care of yourself, you’ll be able to better care for your loved one.

To combat keep their immune systems strong, caregivers need to learn how to manage stress and find ways to relieve the tremendous burden of constant care for a loved one. Don’t become isolated; enlist support from other caregivers, a caregiver support group, family and/or friends so you can carve out time to pursue activities that you enjoy and maintain social connections.

Many communities or long-term care facilities offer respite programs that enable caregivers to take needed breaks from caregiving while knowing their loved one is well taken care of. Such services may be available from home healthcare agencies, assisted-living facilities or nursing homes. Enrolling the person with Alzheimer’s in an appropriate adult day care program can also provide a necessary period of respite for the caregiver.

6 Flu Shot Myths Debunked

Myth #1: The flu vaccine increases Alzheimer’s risk.
Truth: The theory that flu shots can increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease has been discredited. In fact, several mainstream studies, including one published in a 2001 issue of Canadian Medical Journal, and another published in a 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, have suggested that flu shots and other vaccinations may lead to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as an increase in overall better health.

Myth #2: You can catch the flu from getting the vaccine.
Truth: The injectable flu vaccine doesn’t contain the live influenza virus, so it’s impossible to “catch” the flu in even a mild form from getting a flu shot. There can be some side effects to the flu shot, such as a headache, low-grade fever, and soreness, swelling or itching at the injection site. These side effects are usually mild and only last for a few days. In addition, they don’t occur in everyone who gets a flu shot. The flu shot might not be right for you, however, if you have a severe allergy to eggs or if you have had a severe allergic reaction to a flu shot in the past.

Myth #3: Flu shots are only given in the fall.
Truth: Flu shots can be given any time from October through March. Most years, the flu season doesn’t begin until January, and doesn’t peak until February or March. The earlier you can get your flu shot, the better, but if it’s winter and you haven’t gotten your vaccination yet, it’s not too late. Just remember, it takes your body about two weeks after the shot to build immunity to the influenza virus. The influenza virus differs from year to year, so it’s important to get a vaccination annually.

Myth #4: The stomach flu is a type of influenza virus, and the flu shot can protect the body against it, too.
Truth: The flu is primarily a respiratory illness, although it can cause additional complications. When people refer to a “stomach flu,” they are most likely referring to viral gastroenteritis, which is not the illness commonly known as “the flu.” The flu shot does not protect against this virus or any viruses other than the influenza virus.

Myth #5: You shouldn’t get a flu shot if you’re sick.
Truth: Minor illnesses, even those accompanied by a fever, should not prevent you from getting a flu shot. In fact, if you are frequently ill due to chronic health problems, a suppressed immune system or exposure to others who are frequently sick, that is all the more reason for you to get a flu shot. Otherwise, if you get the flu, your risk for complications could be higher than that of someone in good health.

Myth #6: The flu shot protects you against the avian flu, better known as the “bird flu.”
Truth: The flu shot does not protect against the bird flu. In addition, it should be noted that, currently, the standard influenza virus poses a much greater risk to the health of Americans than the minute risk of bird flu. The influenza virus is also easily preventable through the annual flu vaccine.

Find a Flu Clinic Near You

You may be able to get a flu shot at your doctor’s office, through your employer, at your local pharmacy or any number of places. To easily find a flu clinic near you, visit www.lung.org/lung-disease/influenza/flu-vaccine-finder. This website, created by the American Lung Association, will allow you to search for flu clinics by date and Zip Code. It also has functions that allow you to set a flu shot reminder for yourself and send the finder to your friends and family.

For Additional Information: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov; The American Lung Association, www.lungusa.org.

Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Author: Jennifer Sellers, Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Winter 2008.