In the wake of music legend Prince’s untimely death earlier this month, reports are emerging about what could have killed the 57-year-old. An autopsy report determining the pop icon’s cause of death had not been released as of April 27, but his rep confirmed to People magazine that the singer had been suffering from the flu in the weeks prior to his death.
While it’s unknown whether this may have contributed to Prince’s death, doctors and infectious disease specialists have long known that the flu can be deadly. This is especially true for those with chronic health conditions, pregnant women, young children and adults over 65.
The flu can be deadly, especially for seniors
With symptoms that are sometimes mistaken for the common cold, the flu is typically not severe enough to lead to death. But it’s important to remember that there are some big differences between the cold and influenza, and that flu-related deaths do happen.
During a three-decade period from 1976 to 2006, estimates of flu-related deaths in the United states range anywhere from 3,000 to about 49,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those who died during more recent flu seasons, roughly 80 to 90% were 65 or older, the CDC reports.
“Older age is associated with diminishing function of the immune system and a higher likelihood of other conditions (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) being present that make any case of flu more complicated than in the average younger person,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a board-certified infectious disease specialist and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
It was seniors’ higher flu risk that ultimately prompted the development of a high-dose influenza vaccine, Adalja said.
How to protect against the flu
Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself and elderly loved ones from catching this infectious illness. According to the CDC, getting a flu shot each year soon after the vaccine is available is still the best way to protect against the virus. The vaccine protects against the strains of influenza expected to be the most widespread during the upcoming flu season.
Anyone 65 and older can choose from two different flu shots – the regular dose vaccine, and one with a higher dose that is developed specifically for those 65 and older. The second type of shot has been linked to a stronger immune response after vaccination, the CDC reports.
Other preventive measures include the same healthy habits that can help keep you from catching a cold. That means covering your mouth when you cough, washing hands thoroughly and often, and steering clear of people who are sick. Make sure to seek medical attention if you or an elderly loved one is exhibiting flu-like symptoms, which can include:
- Sore throat
- Muscle or body aches
- Runny nose
A health care professional can provide antiviral drugs to treat these symptoms. It’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible to help avoid complications, particularly for those already suffering from a chronic illness.