Influenza, which people commonly call flu, is typically a seasonal infection. It is more likely to cause complications, such as pneumonia, in older adults than younger adults.

This article explores how flu may affect older people, including symptoms, potential complications, and treatment. It also explains how people may help prevent the spread of flu and when they may need to speak with a healthcare professional.

Flu resources

For more information and resources to help keep you and your loved ones healthy this flu season, visit our dedicated hub.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that during the October 2022 to April 2023 season, flu was responsible for the following:

  • 27–54 million illnesses
  • 300,000–650,000 hospitalizations
  • 19,000–58,000 deaths

People over the age of 65 have a higher chance of developing serious complications from the flu than younger, healthy adults.

The CDC state that vaccination is the best way for a person to help prevent contracting the flu and any potentially severe complications.

Flu generally causes a rapid onset of symptoms.

The virus usually takes about 2 days to incubate before a person’s symptoms start, though it can take 1–4 days.

A person will often experience some of the following with flu:

While many people associate the flu with fevers, the CDC note that not everyone with the flu will develop a fever.

Also, children have a higher chance of developing vomiting and diarrhea due to flu compared with adults.

Adults over the age of 65 have a higher chance of developing severe flu complications compared with younger, healthy adults.

A weakening immune system in older adults causes them to be more susceptible to serious illness. In addition, older individuals are more likely to have other health conditions, such as diabetes, that elevate their risk of developing complications from the flu.

Pneumonia is a serious complication associated with the flu. In some cases, it can lead to death.

Other potentially severe complications of the flu can include:

Additionally, flu can worsen conditions such as chronic heart disease and asthma, potentially causing asthma attacks.

It may also lead to sinus or ear infections.

People do not always need formal medical treatment for flu.

Those presenting with only mild symptoms may be able to use over-the-counter medications to treat their symptoms. They should then seek medical attention if they start to feel worse.

However, the National Insitute on Aging (NIA) advises older individuals to speak with a healthcare professional if they contract flu.

A doctor may prescribe antiviral medications to the following groups:

  • older adults
  • people presenting with moderate to severe flu symptoms
  • individuals who show signs of flu complications

Healthcare professionals usually recommend that a person takes antiviral medication for a minimum of 5 days.

A person may require hospitalization if they develop any complications.

Flu may spread through tiny droplets when someone talks, coughs, or sneezes. These droplets may land on another person’s nose or mouth, causing them to contract the virus.

A person can also get the virus from touching objects or surfaces that have the virus on them and then touching their mouth or nose. However, this is less common.

Duration of transmissibility

A person is most likely to transmit flu to others in the first 3–4 days from symptom development.

Some individuals may be able to transmit the virus 1 day before symptoms start and up to 5–7 days after they first feel unwell.

Someone with a weakened immune system or a young child may be able to transmit the flu for a more extended period.

Means of prevention

The CDC note that getting vaccinated is the most effective means of preventing the spread of the flu and reducing the risk of complications.

About 2 weeks after a person receives a flu shot, their body creates antibodies that protect against flu.

The CDC recommend all people over the age of 6 months receive the flu vaccine each year. In rare exceptions, a healthcare professional may recommend against someone receiving the vaccine.

Though the flu vaccine can help prevent serious illness, it may not always prevent a person from getting sick due to flu. A person can take additional steps to help stop the spread of flu, including:

  • staying home when sick
  • washing their hands regularly
  • avoiding touching their nose, eyes, or mouth
  • covering their nose or mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • avoiding close contact with others who are unwell
  • disinfecting and cleaning surfaces when someone is sick at home, school, or work

Most people over the age of 65 should seek medical attention at the first signs of illness with the flu, due to being at high risk of severe infection and complications.

A person should also seek emergency medical attention if they experience any of the following with flu:

A person over the age of 65 has a higher risk of developing potentially dangerous complications from flu.

It is best for people in this age group to consider getting a flu vaccination unless a healthcare professional instructs them not to do so, which only happens in rare cases. They also need to avoid contact with people who have the flu and seek medical help if they develop any flu-like symptoms.

A doctor can provide further guidance and appropriate treatment for older individuals who contract the flu.