What caregivers need to know to keep loved ones safe.
At least 34.2 million Americans will provide care to an elderly loved one this year, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. The task of providing at-home care can be especially difficult during the winter months when cold, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) diagnoses are on the rise. How do you protect the one you care for from getting sick, especially if you’re sick yourself?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV leads to 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths among adults older than 65. RSV is often thought of as a childhood disease, but knowing what you can do to prevent and spot RSV can keep your older loved ones safe during cold and flu season.
RSV, a common respiratory virus, can seem like a mild common cold to healthy adults. Most people can recover quickly with self-care in a week or two. But in older adults, especially those with asthma, heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the virus can be very severe or even fatal. You can get RSV anytime, but reported cases are highest between November and April.
What does RSV look like?
Signs of RSV begin to appear four to six days after being exposed to the virus. In adults and older children, RSV can present as:
- Congested or runny nose
- Dry cough
- Low-grade fever
- Sore throat
- Mild headache
The virus can spread to the lower respiratory tract, causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis (the small airway passages entering the lungs become inflamed). More severe RSV signs include:
- Severe cough
- Wheezing — a loud noise when a person breathes out
- Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing (your loved one may request to sleep sitting up)
- The skin looks blue due to lack of oxygen (cyanosis)
You’re sick. How do you protect your loved one from getting sick too?
If you have any signs of RSV, especially if you have a fever, try to limit the time you spend with your loved one until you’re healthy. See if another relative or friend can check on or provide care to your loved one. In reality, that’s not always possible, especially if your loved one relies on you for food prep and mobility help. What do you do in that situation?
- Wash your hands frequently. Hand-washing is key to prevent the spread of germs. Proper hand-washing means using soap and water for 20 seconds (don’t forget your thumbs). Hand sanitizer is a good substitute in a pinch, but frequent hand-washing with soap and water is best.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes. Use tissues or your upper shirt sleeve — not your hands — when coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid close contact. Depending on the level of care your loved one needs, this may not be easy. Try not to hug, kiss or shake hands. If you cook for your loved one, make sure you don’t taste test and put the utensil back into the food. Don’t share any utensils or drinking cups with your loved one.
- If you can’t avoid close contact, consider a mask and gloves while providing care. You may already use disposable gloves to care for your loved one, based on their needs. But while you’re sick, you may want to use earloop-style face masks for their care as well. Remember: Wash your hands before putting on gloves and after. Wearing disposable gloves and a face mask may seem excessive, but it can help keep your loved one safe.
- Keep things clean. Make sure kitchen and bathroom countertops are clean. Discard used tissues right away. What you touch, you wipe down.
Despite your best efforts, your loved one gets sick
“Caregivers should closely monitor temperature and other symptoms including cough, sore throat and body aches,” said Carmel J. Person, M.D., Norton Community Medical Associates – Geriatrics. “Anytime cold symptoms don’t improve in a day or two, or the condition worsens, call your doctor. Remember, you do not need to figure this out alone.”
If your loved one shows these signs of severe RSV, go to the emergency room:
- Difficulty breathing
- High fever
- Blue color to the skin (lips and nail beds, especially)