Older Adults at Higher Risk for Complications from the Flu

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

If you’re age 50 or older, have you had your flu shot yet?

It’s that time of year when cold weather brings people together indoors, increasing the chance of spreading the influenza (flu) virus. Flu season runs from November to April, and October to November is the recommended vaccination time (although you can be vaccinated after November).

Because flu viruses change each year, you need to get a new flu shot each year. Once you get the shot, it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to reach its maximum effectiveness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and about 36,000 people die from flu each year in the U.S.

The risk of developing severe symptoms and complications is higher for adults age 65 and older, and about 90 percent of the deaths caused by flu occur in this age group. Older adults are at higher risk for complications because their immune systems are less effective in fighting off infections. Many also have underlying health problems that may make it harder to fight off the flu.

Because nearly one-third of people ages 50 to 64 have one or more medical conditions that place them at increased risk for serious flu complications, the flu vaccination also is recommended for this age group.

For older people and those with chronic illness, a flu shot may not necessarily prevent the flu, but can reduce the symptoms and risk of complications if they do get sick.

Flu symptoms include inflammation of the nose, throat, and eyes; fever, cough, headache, muscle aches, and generalized weakness. While most people recover within a week or so, older adults and people with chronic health problems are more likely to develop serious complications. If symptoms worsen (fever persists, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, chest pain, or a cough that produces thick phlegm), you should seek medical attention.

Tips to Avoid the Flu
Flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu and related complications. The CDC strongly recommends that high-risk persons—including all people ages 50 and older—be vaccinated by November. If this is not possible, you can continue to seek the flu vaccine in December or later if necessary.

CDC primary target groups for annual flu vaccination

  • People at increased risk for complications from the flu, including people 65 and older.
  • People ages 50-64 because this group has increased prevalence of high-risk conditions.
  • Residents of nursing homes and other facilities that house people with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.
  • Adults and children who have chronic pulmonary or cardiovascular disorders, including asthma.
  • Adults and children who have chronic metabolic diseases (including diabetes), kidney disorders, disorders caused by hemoglobin abnormalities, or a weakened immune system.
  • Children and teenagers (ages 6 months to 18 years) who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy, and therefore might be at risk for developing Reye syndrome.
  • Women who will be in the second or third trimester of pregnancy during the flu season.
  • People who can transmit the flu to those at high risk.
  • Physicians, nurses, and other personnel in hospital and outpatient care settings, including emergency response workers.
  • Employees of nursing homes and chronic-care facilities who have contact with patients or residents.
  • Employees of assisted living and other residences for persons in high-risk groups.
  • Those who provide home care to persons in groups at high risk.
  • Household members (including children) of people in groups at high risk.

Other tips to prevent the flu include:

  • Wash your hands to prevent spreading respiratory infections or picking them up from someone else.
  • Avoid contact with people who you know have a cold or the flu.
  • Eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, and exercise to help the immune system better fight off the germs that cause illness.
  • If you develop flu symptoms, contact your doctor within the first 48 hours of symptoms. He or she can provide early treatment with antiviral medications may reduce the severity of the flu.

Treating the Flu
To help relieve flu symptoms:

  • Drink fluids and rest.
  • Use over-the-counter (OTC) flu medicines that are appropriate for your symptoms.
  • If you are taking other medications, check with a doctor or pharmacist before taking a new OTC medicine. Some can worsen underlying health problems, such as high blood pressure or heart disease.

For more information, visit www.columbia-stmarys.org.

Dr. Marcus Perry specializes in internal medicine at Northlake Medical Associates, one of 28 Columbia St. Mary’s Community Clinics.


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