Seniors and the Flu
How serious is the flu?
Many people think the flu is nothing more than a bad cold -- until they come down with it. When your entire body aches, your energy vanishes, and a fever, dry cough, sore throat, and headaches set in, it's impossible to mistake the flu for a mild illness. It can be extremely debilitating, and in rare cases, it is even fatal.
The flu can hit anybody hard, but it's especially dangerous for people over 65 and others with weak immune systems. If you're older, it's particularly dangerous because the viral infection can exhaust your body, making it easy for life-threatening complications such as bacterial pneumonia to take hold. It can also worsen the symptoms of conditions like heart disease, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Should I get a flu shot?
It's a really good idea. For years, the CDC urged every person 65 and over to get an annual flu shot. But for some years, the CDC has updated its guidelines to recommend that everyone over 6 months old get the shot (unless, of course, you have a contraindication to the vaccine).
Besides the very young and very old, the CDC recommends flu shots for the following groups at high risk for flu-related complications in particular:
- People with chronic lung disease such as asthma, or cardiovascular disease (except high blood pressure)
- People who need regular medical care (or needed hospitalization in the past year) for diabetes, kidney problems, blood cell diseases, or immune disorders
- People who are extremely overweight (a body mass index of 40 or higher)
- People who live or work with anyone at risk for flu-related complications. This is to make sure those who have contact with seniors (or other high-risk people) don't inadvertently pass the infection on to them.
In addition, it's a good idea to be vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia (the pneumonia caused by strep bacteria) if you're over 65 or in one of the high-risk groups above. You can get this shot anytime, including the day you go in for your flu shot.
Is the flu shot safe?
Although it's a common fear, it's impossible to catch the flu from a flu shot. The vaccination contains a killed virus that stimulates your immune system to make antibodies but can't cause disease. The most common side effect (in a third of all people) is a little soreness and swelling at the site of the shot. About 5 to 10 percent of people, especially children who have never been exposed to influenza viruses, develop mild fever, fatigue, and body aches immediately after the vaccination.
There are certain people who should not get vaccinated. Talk with your doctor if you think you have an allergy to hens' eggs, if you've had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past, or if you've developed Guillain Barre Syndrome within 6 weeks of a flu shot. The CDC says the vaccine is currently safe for people with an allergy to eggs, but that you should have the shot in a medical setting where you can be observed for any allergic reactions.
How effective is it? Is there a chance I can catch the flu anyway?
A flu shot is your best defense against the wily virus -- people over 65 who get vaccinated every year lower their odds of being hospitalized for pneumonia and the flu by about 70 percent and their risk of dying by about 85 percent. For people living in nursing homes, vaccinations cut the risk of flu-related hospitalizations by 50 percent and deaths by 80 percent.
Keep in mind that the shot isn't as effective when you get older for the same reason you can't fight off the flu as easily -- your immune system isn't as good as making antibodies to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other intruders. A flu shot will protect about 50 percent of people over 65 (but 70 to 90 percent of healthy young adults). So even if you get vaccinated, it helps to be careful. Wash your hands often when you're around people who may have the flu, and if possible, avoid spending a lot of time in crowded buildings -- the flu virus spreads when infected people cough or sneeze.
Do I need a flu shot every year?
Yes. Unlike many other vaccinations, a flu shot does not give you lifelong protection. The flu virus comes in many different strains that change from one year to the next, and the shots are only designed to protect you from the few major strains that are expected to be a problem in a certain year. Even if the same strain comes back a year later, your immunity can weaken between flu seasons.
When should I get a flu shot?
The best time to get a flu shot is from early September (or as soon as the vaccine is available) and throughout the flu season. Within one to two weeks, your body will develop antibodies against the disease. Since the flu season generally runs through March and even May, getting vaccinated as late as February may still save you some misery, but it's best not to wait until the last minute. You'll want protection for the duration of the yearly epidemic; in addition, supplies of the vaccine often run out towards the end of the flu season.
Will my insurance cover it?
Low cost flu shots are available at many clinics and pharmacies at the beginning of flu season. If you have Medicare Part B, your flu shot is free every year (there's no co-pay and it doesn't apply towards your deductible) no matter where you get it, as long as your doctor orders it and the provider accepts Medicare and doesn't charge more than what Medicare will pay. Members of Medicare HMOs need to ask their health plan for details. If you have Medicare Part B, the pneumonia shot is also free when your physician orders it.
How can I treat the flu?
If you think you have the flu, schedule an appointment with your doctor promptly. He or she can prescribe drugs that fight the flu virus, but they'll only help if you take them within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Your doctor can also determine if you really have the flu or if your symptoms indicate one of several other illnesses -- such as viral bronchitis or rhinovirus infections -- that also make the rounds every winter.
You can take several steps on your own to ease the misery of the flu or keep from getting it in the first place:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you cough, sneeze, or touch your eyes. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are great for killing germs when you're on the go. When someone in your house is sick, antibacterial wipes are good to use on surfaces in high-traffic areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms.
- Don't touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. (You can spread germs from the mucus in your eyes and mouth this way.)
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue, then throw it out immediately afterward. If you don't have a tissue handy, cough or sneeze into your elbow or sleeve.
- Killing germs is one thing; staying healthy is another. Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables will help keep your body's immune system working at its peak.
Finally, if you feel sick or have a fever, stay home until the fever is gone for 24 hours (without having to take medicine to reduce it). If you're sick, limit contact with others unless you need a friend or relative to bring you medication or other supplies.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Influenza (Flu) https://www.cdc.gov/flu/consumer/index.html
Nichol KL, Goodman M. The health and economic benefits of influenza vaccination for healthy and at-risk persons aged 65 to 74 years. Pharmacoeconomics. 1999;16 Suppl 1:63-71.
Nichol KL, Margolis KL, Wouremna J, von Sternberg T. Effectiveness of influenza vaccine in the elderly. Gerontology. 1996;42(5):274-9.
Krieger JW, Castorina JS, Walls ML, Weaver MR, Ciske S. Increasing influenza and pneumococcal immunization rates: a randomized controlled study of a senior center-based intervention. Am J Prev Med 18(2