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Senior Health: Flu Prevention

Older adults and people with health problems or weakened immune systems can be especially vulnerable to contracting and experiencing complications from the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting the flu shot every year is the most effective way to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting sick. Although the flu affects people of all ages, adults over the age of 65 tend to account for the majority of flu-related hospitalizations and side effects according to the CDC.

What You Need to Know About Senior Health and the Flu Shot

Despite the fact that the flu shot has been identified as the most effective way to prevent the flu, especially in vulnerable populations like seniors and people with health problems such as diabetes and heart and lung disease, there are many misconceptions about how the flu vaccine works and whether or not it is safe for seniors. Knowing what to expect and understanding the pros and cons can help to put your mind at ease and eliminate any stress or anxiety around the getting vaccinated for the flu.

Myth: Getting the flu shot will give you the flu

Many people decide to skip the flu shot and “take their chances” out of fear that getting inoculated will actually make them sick. It is a common and understandable concern, but the truth is that the doses used in a vaccine are not active or infectious. The flu shot helps the body to produce antibodies against a particular strain of the flu to minimize the risk of getting sick and developing complications that can be life-threatening in severe cases.

There are potential side effects, which tend to be mild for most people. It is the side effects, which may include discomfort at the site of the injection or low-grade fever, which people tend to mistake for contracting the flu from a vaccination.

If and when side effects do occur, they are generally minimal and much milder than the symptoms and side effects of the flu itself, which can include:

  • Fever
  • Aches
  • Chills
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose and/or nasal congestion
  • Headache
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Phlegm
  • Chest congestion
  • Fatigue

In addition to the usual symptoms, the flu can also lead to complications such as ear or sinus infections on the mild end of the spectrum, to pneumonia and respiratory distress for people already suffering from lung disease, asthma or cardiac disease.

Myth: Getting the flu shot will not keep you from getting sick

While it is true that getting the flu shot will not guarantee that you or your loved ones will not get sick, statistics show that getting vaccinated not only reduces the risk of getting the flu by up to as much as 40 percent in most years, but it can also make the symptoms less severe if you do get sick.

Benefits of Getting Yearly Flu Shots

Every strain of the flu is different, and some years are worse than others, so it is important to get the flu shot every year to protect yourself and your family from the current strain. Because hospitalizations from flu-related symptoms and complications are more common among seniors, the flu shot offers an additional level of protection against preventable illnesses, as well as the stress and potential financial burdens of additional medical treatment and hospital costs.

Protecting Your Neighbors and Community

In addition to keeping yourself healthy during flu season, a flu shot also helps to reduce the risk of getting your neighbors, family, friends, and co-workers sick as well. This is especially relevant for seniors in assisted living or adult day health communities, who are often in regular contact with other seniors with various health issues and risks.

Other Things You Can Do to Lower Your Flu Risk

Getting the flu shot is at the top of the list of effective prevention strategies and should be your first priority every year. Making a regular date to get vaccinated every October, and thinking about the flu shot as a standard part of your healthcare and wellness routine, is a great way to eliminate any stress or anxiety around the process.

In addition to getting vaccinated, you can take precautions such as:

  • Regularly washing your hands with soap and water
  • Using a tissue to cover your nose and mouth while coughing and sneezing
  • Limiting close contact with sick people
  • Staying home and resting or seeing a doctor if you are not feeling well
  • Remembering to keep countertops and surfaces clean to lower the risk of spreading germs
  • If you have the flu, waiting until you are feeling better to visit a senior to protect them from getting sick

When to Get the Flu Shot

There are no hard beginning and end dates for flu season, but a typical season usually begins in October, peaking in the colder winter months and leveling off through March and April, depending on the year. The flu vaccine has a two-week inoculation period, so the CDC recommends getting the shot as soon as possible, ideally in early October. However, it is never too late to get the flu shot, so getting it in December or January or later in the season is still beneficial.

If you are concerned about your own risk levels or those of a vulnerable friend or family member, consult a physician for a personalized recommendation for flu prevention and treatment.

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