Coronavirus: What Older Adults Need to Know to Stay Healthy

By Nancy Fitzgerald |

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there's a glimmer of hope as vaccines begin to arrive. But don't let your guard down. Follow these tips now to stay strong.

senior man in mask

The coronavirus doesn't know-or care-that you're tired of it. It continues to spread in communities around the country and across the world. Nearly a year after it began, we're seeing surges in infection rates and hospitalizations, even as we learn more and more about how to prevent and treat the virus.

"It's a serious virus," says Gary LeRoy, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "We all need to take the necessary precautions." If you're 65 years or older, you're at a higher risk because aging can compromise your immune system.

“Plus, when you get to a certain age, you’re more likely to have accumulated some other health conditions, which can complicate the way the virus acts in your body,” says Dr. LeRoy.

If you have heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, cancer, obesity, or any other chronic illness, and you get sick from COVID-19, you may have more serious complications than someone who doesn’t have additional health issues.

It can be scary-but you have some measure of control, and experts stress that there are many ways to protect yourself. Here's what you need to know right now to stay safe.

Your Guide to Prevention

Because COVID-19 spreads so easily, prevention should be top of mind. For older adults, it's vital-and potentially lifesaving. Eight out of 10 people who die from COVID-19 are age 65 or older, and hospitalizations among this age group are between five and 13 times higher than they are for younger people.

Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for older adults.

Avoid Crowds of All Sizes

Almost every community is experiencing an outbreak, so skip the mall, nail and hair salons, activities at your local community center, and anywhere people gather. Instead, explore virtual options for everything from workouts to religious services-and even family gatherings.

Your local health officials may have more specific instructions. Check your local news, or find out what your state and local health departments recommend. You can find information for state health departments here.

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Keep Your Distance

Whether you call it "social distancing" or "physical distancing," put about six feet between yourself and others whenever possible, even if you're wearing a mask. If you need to pick up groceries, medications, or household essentials, try to go when it's less crowded-or do curbside pickup, have them delivered to your home, or ask a loved one for help.

Wear a Mask

It's one of the most effective strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19, and a mask may also protect you. When people in high-exposure situations consistently wore masks, their risk of catching the virus was 70 percent less than those who didn't always wear a mask, according to studies.

But don't wait for a high-risk situation. Wear a mask when you are out in public or interacting with people who do not live with you. For the best protection, you need to be wearing the right mask properly.

The CDC recommends a mask that:

  • Has two or three layers of breathable fabric like cotton or cotton blends
  • Is made of tightly woven fabric that doesn’t let light pass through
  • Is clean and dry, so wash yours regularly
  • Covers your mouth and nose, and make sure you wear it that way
  • Fits snugly on all sides without gaps


Get Your Flu Shot If You Haven’t Already

It's more important than ever. Adults age 65 and older account for the most hospitalizations and deaths from both flu and COVID-19. Getting immunized can help prevent flu-related hospitalizations and reduce the strain on healthcare systems. "We don't want to see a 'twindemic,'" says Ann Marie Pettis, R.N., director of infection prevention for University of Rochester Medicine Highland Hospital in New York.

Though the flu vaccine doesn't directly protect you from COVID-19, it may help. When you get the flu, you're more susceptible to other viruses, including COVID-19, explains Pettis. Research from the University of Florida also shows that the flu vaccine may make a coronavirus infection less severe. In the study, COVID-19 patients who had received a flu vaccination in the past year were less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and less likely to be admitted to intensive care if they were hospitalized.

In addition to getting your flu shot, check out the latest CDC information on COVID-19 vaccines here.

Wash Your Hands Often—and Correctly

Lather up with plain soap and water of any temperature, and gently scrub your hands together for at least 20 seconds-that's about how long it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice. Don't forget the back of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Finish by drying your hands.

Wash your hands before and after:

  • Touching your eyes, nose, mouth, or face
  • Touching your mask
  • Preparing or eating food
  • Going out in public

If soap and water aren't available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Squirt on enough to cover your hands, and rub them together, making sure to spread it all over and under your nails. Rub until your hands feel dry.

Mind the Germ Hot Spots

At home, disinfect "high-touch" surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, counters, tables, faucets, toilets, and remotes. Follow the instructions on the disinfecting product you're using. When you leave the house, minimize contact with door handles, elevator buttons, railings, and other surfaces. Cover your hands with a tissue, and wash your hands afterward.

Stay Home

Now is not the time to be traveling. You’ll be putting yourself at a higher risk for catching or spreading the virus, and it won’t be as carefree as it was pre-pandemic. While planes, trains, and buses are still operating, travel is restricted for many countries, and many states have quarantine or testing recommendations if you visit. You may also need to quarantine upon your return. Check with state health departments about restrictions and quarantine regulations, and the CDC for more coronavirus and travel guidelines.

Your Guide to Symptoms

“Our understanding is evolving day by day,” says Dr. LeRoy. In the early days of the pandemic, doctors focused primarily on three symptoms—fever, cough, and shortness of breath—but now we know that a variety of other symptoms may also be warning signs of COVID-19.

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Look out for these signs. If you think you have symptoms of COVID-19, it's important to you call your doctor right away, especially if you have a condition that may increase your risk of complications.

Flu-like Symptoms

COVID-19 is not the the same as the flu or a common cold, but they share many symptoms. Watch for fever, cough, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion, or runny nose.

Loss of Taste and Smell

These are among the earliest signs-and best predictors-of a COVID-19 infection. A Harvard study found that COVID-19 patients are 27 times more likely to experience a loss of smell than those without COVID-19, making it a far better predictor than symptoms such as fever, cough, or respiratory problems.

Stomach Issues

For approximately 16 percent of COVID-19 patients, the only symptoms they experience are gastrointestinal—including appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Sensory Signals

Scientists are learning that COVID-19 can target the central nervous system. As many as 80 percent of COVID-19 patients experience neurological symptoms, including dizziness, headache, nausea, and foggy thinking.

“COVID Toes” or Other Skin Changes

Some patients who test positive for COVID-19 experience discoloration and inflammation of their toes or fingers, or unexplained bumpy, itchy rashes elsewhere on their body.

Hearing Loss

Though it’s rare, for some COVID-19 patients, hearing loss or tinnitus—ringing in the ears—may be linked to the virus.

When to Get Emergency Help

The CDC also recommends getting immediate medical care if you have these coronavirus warning signs:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Bluish lips or face
  • Any other emergency signs your doctor has indicated

Call 911, and be as specific as you can about your symptoms. Follow any instructions they give you.

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