Director’s Column: It’s Flu Season — Don’t Be Caught Unprepared
Flu season usually starts in October and typically continues through May. People age 65 years and older are at greater risk of serious complications from the flu compared with younger healthier adults. This is because the immune system becomes weaker as we age. It is estimated that between 71 percent and 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths every year occur in people 65 years and older. Between 54 percent and 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur in this same age group. Last year in New York state there were 12,912 flu-related hospitalizations and eight pediatric deaths. Influenza is often quite serious for both the very young and older adults, especially those who have chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory problems.
“The single best way to protect against the influenza virus is to get a flu shot every year,” said NYS Commissioner of Health Dr. Howard Zucker. “Getting vaccinated even when you’re not at high-risk will protect family and friends.”
Since the flu virus spreads easily from person to person, it is especially important for family members and people who have regular contact with high-risk individuals to be vaccinated.
“Immune systems are more easily compromised as we age,” said NYS Office for the Aging Acting Director Greg Olsen. “And older adults, especially those with chronic health conditions, have an increased risk of developing serious complications from the flu. Getting the flu vaccine helps prevent the spread of the virus and offers vital protection for older adults and their caregivers.”
The flu can cause mild to severe illness. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea. People infected with the flu may have respiratory symptoms without a fever. In addition to getting a flu shot, practice good hand-hygiene can prevent spreading of the flu. Wash your hands often and carry an alcohol based sanitizer to use when soap and water are not available. Do not cough or sneeze into your hands, instead, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or use the crook of your elbow.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults over the age of 65 should take additional precautions: Seek medical advice early, if you have flu symptoms, to see if you need treatment with antiviral drugs. These medications are most effective when given early. People who are over 65 years should get a pneumococcal vaccine since flu increases your risk for developing pneumonia.
There are two vaccines designed specifically for people 65 and older: The high dose vaccine is designed specifically for people 65 and older and contains four times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot. It is associated with a stronger immune response and higher antibody production. Studies showed that adults 65 years and older who received the high dose vaccine had 24 percent fewer influenza infections. Flu vaccines are often updated each season to keep up with changing viruses and also immunity wanes over a year so annual vaccination is needed to ensure the best possible protection. Immunity from vaccination takes effect in about two weeks.
While there are other ways besides injection to administer flu vaccine these days, the CDC states “People 65 years of age and older should not get the nasal spray flu vaccine, the intradermal flu shot, or jet injector flu vaccine.” For more information about the flu, visit the CDC at www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/65over.htm or the NYS DOH website at www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/influenza/seasonal.