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


  • People who need regular medical care (or needed

    hospitalization in the past year) for diabetes,

    kidney problems, blood cell diseases, or immune


  • 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


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 if you’ve had a reaction stronger than hives, 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 — a 2018 study found that flu vaccination among adults reduced the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit with flu symptoms by 82 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. 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


When should I get a flu shot?

The best time to get a flu shot is between early September and late October (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 or C, 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


  • 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


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), accessed May 30, 2021.

Nichol KL, Margolis KL, Wouremna J, von Sternberg T.

Effectiveness of influenza vaccine in the elderly.

Gerontology; 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

© HealthDay

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