Senior Safety from the Tripledemic (Flu, COVID-19, and RSV)

Senior Safety from the Tripledemic (Flu, COVID-19, and RSV)

When flu season rolls around, seniors and elderly adults know it’s time to protect themselves from getting whatever strain of influenza is out there. But in recent years, other threats to senior health have shown up with a vengeance. COVID-19 (caused by a virus) took over the world, quite literally, back in 2020, and has never fully disappeared. And RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, has been around for a long time but the dangers to elderly adults are just now becoming well-known as the virus becomes more common.

These three viruses are creating what scientists have termed the “tripledemic” – the threat of three viruses hitting a population at the same time. This puts those who are already at higher risk of infection from any of the three, such as seniors and the elderly, much more vulnerable to all of them.

Important Points about the Tripledemic

Though the word “tripledemic” refers to the three prominent viruses of influenza, RSV, and COVID, there are many other respiratory illnesses that come out of hiding more often during the winter months. These include rhinovirus, adenovirus, and human metapneumovirus, all of which are drivers of the common cold.

But the common cold might not be as gentle in the elderly as it is in other adults. For most young adults or those in mid-life, the “common” cold is called that for a reason – it happens often and it almost always vanishes within a week or so. But in the elderly, it can lead to pneumonia and other, more severe illnesses. And for seniors, especially those who have compromised immune systems, complications from these viruses can be deadly.

The deaths from COVID are well-documented – according to the World Health Organization, we’re approaching 7 million deaths worldwide, with over 768 million confirmed cases. Well over a million of those deaths occurred in the United States, along with more than 103 million infections.1 Keep in mind those are only the deaths and cases that are confirmed, which means that both of those numbers are definitely higher. 

COVID really caught our attention because of how quickly and fully the virus changed the world. We all watched the number of deaths grow in real time, and most of us had friends, family, or other loved ones who suffered from the virus.

Influenza doesn’t generate as many dire headlines as COVID does, but it marches on year after year. The Journal of Global Health reports that about 650,000 people die worldwide every year due to complications of the flu.2 In the United States, the CDC reports that between 2010 and 2020, influenza accounted for anywhere from 9 to 41 million illnesses and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths each year.3

Why do those numbers cover such a wide range? It’s difficult to pin down just how many severe illnesses and deaths are caused by the flu, especially for those with underlying conditions. For instance, influenza might make a heart condition worse, and then the person might die from a heart attack or stroke – so is the cause of death the heart condition, or the influenza?

And we have RSV to contend with as well. Once known as a respiratory illness of children, many are unaware that RSV infections can rage through the elderly population almost as easily. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there are about 64 million cases of RSV worldwide and about 160,000 deaths. Among the elderly in the United States, about 14,000 elderly adults die of RSV each year.4  

How to Protect Yourself

A look at these numbers might make you want to stay inside all winter to avoid potential infection. But luckily, there are many things you can do to protect yourself from “the big three” as well as the less common viruses floating around.

It starts with understanding how these viruses spread from one person to another. Any respiratory virus is spread through tiny particles in the air or on surfaces. If you breathe in the infected air or touch the infected surface, you can get the infection. It’s usually in the form of droplets that are powered out of the body through coughing or sneezing. Once you’ve been infected, it can be tough to tell which one of the viruses you have, as the symptoms can be quite similar, especially at first.

Seniors are at much greater risk of severe illness or death from respiratory illnesses. There are a few reasons for this. As we get older, our immune system naturally weakens, making it easier for viruses to take hold. And chronic conditions that often develop with age, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or lung disease, can make any infection more severe and lead to a host of complications.

So what can you do to protect yourself from the tripledemic?

·        Get vaccinated. This might be the most important thing you can do for your long term health. Vaccinations for RSV, influenza, and COVID are readily available at your doctor’s office or local pharmacy. Getting the vaccine doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t get the virus, but it does mean that your odds are significantly lower. And if you do get a virus you have been vaccinated for, your illness will likely be much easier to handle, with a lower chance of hospitalization and a much lower risk of death. In addition, if you are vaccinated, you reduce the odds of passing the virus onto other vulnerable people, such as young grandchildren.

·        Remember how the viruses spread. Those droplets that carry the virus can show up in the air and on surfaces. To that end, stay away from people who are sick, make a point of not touching surfaces in public places, and wash your hands very well every time you get the chance. Consider your location as well – for instance, in a crowded movie theater, the air is recirculating and might not be going through filters. Those who have compromised immune systems or the elderly who will be in tight public spaces should consider wearing a mask to avoid breathing in those droplets.

·        Practice social distancing. When you go out in public, social distancing can help you avoid the spread of droplets that lead to infection. During COVID, experts recommended staying at least six feet away from others. You may want to practice this especially during the winter months when the viruses are at their peak and everyone is crowded indoors to avoid the cold weather. If you continuously do the little things for social distancing, such as taking a few steps back at the bank teller’s line or choosing to sit on the opposite side of the room from another patient at the doctor’s office, those tiny things can become a habit that may help keep you healthier.

·        Quarantine yourself if you are sick. Going into quarantine became the norm during the worst of the COVID outbreak, but it’s a good idea at any time, no matter the virus that prompts it. Staying away from others can help you avoid passing the virus on to them. And it has the added bonus for you – if they are sick as well, you could get a double-whammy of one virus on top of another. Keeping to yourself as best you can when you are sick helps everyone.

·        Wear a medical alert device. Choosing a medical alert pendant or wristband and wearing it at all times can provide strong peace of mind. If you begin to feel severe symptoms or suffer any sort of medical emergency as a result of the virus (or any other reason), press the button on the medical alarm and quickly connect with a trained professional from the monitoring center. They can help you from there.

·        Get in touch with your doctor. Though some seniors can tough their way through these viruses, keep in mind that your health could change quite rapidly, especially if you have underlying conditions. Get in touch with your doctor if you become ill. They might be able to provide medications that can ease your symptoms or reduce the time you have to deal with feeling sick.

·        Take all your medications exactly as directed. This tip might not seem directly related to the tripledemic risk. But if you have underlying conditions, it is vitally important to have them well under control when a virus takes hold. For instance, if your blood sugar is consistently too high, your body is struggling with that and so doesn’t have the resources and energy it needs to effectively fight the virus. In addition to a mobile GPS alert system for elderly adults, Alert1 offers a medication dispenser, reminder, and organizer to help keep you on track with your meds.

As the winter approaches and all the viruses creep in with it, protect yourself in every way you can. That includes not only following the tips listed here, but staying on top of news reports of the viral outbreaks in your area and new medications that might be useful.

And as always, seniors should look to an emergency alarm button (necklace, bracelet, or watch styles are available) as your constant companion. Whether you suffer a fall, have a medical emergency or complication, or face a sudden accident that leaves you wondering what to do now, press the button to get the help you need fast. Stay safe and healthy!