Preparing and Protecting Our Seniors for the Flu Season

Flu season is just around the corner. This is a good time for our seniors to size up their immunization history and see that they have all the protection they need as the fall and winter months approach. Older adults are at greater risk for many vaccine-preventable diseases than any other group. In 1999 approximately 90 percent of all influenza and pneumonia-related deaths occurred in individuals aged 65 and older. And equally worrisome, older Hispanic and African-American adults are much less likely to be vaccinated against the flu and pneumonia than others. So it is the perfect time for each on6 of us to see that our seniors get the protection they need.

My elderly parents, both suffering from chronic heart disease, told me they just lined up for their flu shots yesterday at the Community Center where they live. I reminded them that although it is a little early for the flu shot, in view of their chronic conditions and the tremendous protection they get from the flu shot, it made great sense for them to be early rather than too late. The flu shot takes only about two weeks to provide protection and usually lasts throughout a flu season. On the other hand, if the flu season is late in central Pennsylvania where my parents live, they can always talk to their doctor about getting a second shot later on just to be sure they are still protected.

Almost all seniors should receive the flu shot. Unfortunately, not all eligible seniors actually get it. People with high fever from an acute illness and those who are allergic to eggs (the virus is grown in eggs) or the components of the flu vaccine have a legitimate excuse and should avoid it. The most common reason my patients refuse the flu shot is because they are convinced the shot will give them the flu. I assure them that the flu shot has inactivated virus material in it and can’t possibly give them a case of the flu. On the other hand, side effects such as arm pain from the injection, low-grade fever and mild muscle aches can occur for 1-2 days after the shot. Getting the flu shot or not could mean a matter of life or death for seniors and for almost anyone with a chronic serious illness.  The flu really is one of the most preventable diseases – if we get the shot! Some of the elderly sisters that I care for refuse the flu shot year after year yet never get sick. I remind them that they are somewhat protected because everyone else, including the nursing and administrative staff of the home where they live receive the flu shot which protects them too. This form of “immunity” is called herd immunity.

The only other type of flu vaccine available is the nasal spray called Flumist, which contains a weakened but live virus and is NOT recommended for children under the age of 2 and adults 50 and over. The safety of the nasal spray has not been tested in the older and very young population – so even if it is tempting to ask for a spray rather than a shot – better be safe than sorry.

And while you are in the doctor’s office or clinic getting your flu shot, ask your doctor about the pneumonia shot as well. It still surprises me that so many seniors have not received this amazing vaccine against 23 strains of the potentially deadly bacterial form of pneumonia – or even realize the pneumonia vaccine exits. Fewer than 60% of eligible patients get the pneumonia shot. All people over the age of 65 should get the pneumonia shot at least once.  Other people who should ask about the pneumonia vaccine include anyone who does not have a spleen (you can’t fight the pneumonia bacteria as well) or people who have a chronic respiratory or other serious condition.  The good news is that it can last for 5 to 10 years or maybe even much longer. We don’t know exactly whether a booster will help.

I am often asked what happens if you are not sure if you already received the pneumonia shot and get another one only a few years later?  The truth is this – nothing serious will happen and I suppose once again it is better to be safe and get it if you are not sure. However if you have received the pneumonia vaccine a few years earlier, you run a good chance of having a sore arm.  And this is but one good reason you should keep track of your own immunizations. Another reason to keep your own records - a common excuse that seniors give for not getting their shots is that their doctor’s didn’t remind them.   Doctors simply don’t have time to remember everything about you on each doctor visit.  You really need to help your doctor do her job. 

If you have been reading my columns and following some of my advice, you may already carry a wallet card with your emergency health information. If you do, don’t forget to update the area that lists date of pneumonia and flu shots. If you don’t carry an emergency health information card with you, you can print out this helpful form to get you started. You can also print out and keep a copy of your own immunization history. This form will be a great help to you and your doctor. Fill one out for your spouse or a friend as well.

Have you received your flu shot yet? Are you up to date on your pneumonia shot and other immunizations?

As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

Go to the Ask Dr. Marie Home Page | Dr. Marie's Home Page

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