ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Those over 50 need to be immunized against seasonal flu. That's the most important step most older people can take to get safely through the flu season, says Karen Hall, M.D., Ph.D., a University of Michigan Geriatrics Center specialist.
And here's a lesser known fact: Older people who come down with flu-like symptoms should stay home, but promptly contact their primary care physician to carefully monitor their symptoms. They may be priority candidates for antiviral drugs, usually best started within 48 hours of the flu's onset, to make their flu less severe and complications less likely.
"If you have a high fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches, don't wait. Call your health care provider and describe your symptoms," says Hall, a U-M associate professor of geriatric medicine and a research scientist at the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center. "Anyone with shortness of breath or chest pain should go to an emergency room."
In this year's complicated flu season, there have been periodic shortages of vaccines for seasonal flu, which typically begins in late November, and for the H1N1 flu that's grabbing headlines as a new threat for people under age 64.
Hall says the first step in getting the appropriate vaccinations is to contact your primary care doctor to arrange for the vaccinations recommended for you. If you are a candidate for one or both types of flu vaccine but your doctor has none available, ask to be put on a waiting list.
Some stores, including Meijer, Kroger and Target, offer flu vaccinations, except when vaccines are in short supply as they have been recently. Check ahead to be sure a store has vaccine available.
"It's important to get vaccinated against seasonal flu now, or as soon as possible," says Hall. Seasonal flu is already circulating in the community.
For those middle-aged and older, advice on who should be vaccinated for each type of flu depends on your health status and your age. Here's a breakdown about who should get which vaccinations:
- Seasonal flu vaccine: All people 50 or older are more likely to be severely affected and should get vaccinated.
- Pneumonia vaccine: if you are over 65, or are under age 65 and have a health condition that puts you at higher risk, ask your doctor about getting a pneumonia vaccination. This vaccine is widely available and protects against the most common form of pneumonia. Booster pneumonia vaccinations are needed every five to seven years.
- H1N1 vaccine: If you are age 49-64 and have certain health conditions that put you at greater risk, ask your doctor about an H1N1 flu shot. Conditions include chronic lung conditions such as emphysema and asthma, immune disorders, cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, lung and liver disorders, neurological disorders and kidney disorders.
People over 64 aren't eligible for H1N1 vaccine, because they are the most likely to already have some immunity due to earlier exposure to a similar flu strain.
Tips to avoid catching the flu
- Wash hands or use a hand sanitizer frequently.
- Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth.
- Practice good health habits: Get plenty of sleep, eat nutritiously, drink fluids and exercise.
- Avoid crowds and contact with people who are sick. If grandchildren or other children in your life have a flu-like illness, avoid seeing them until about 72 hours after they've stopped having symptoms.
Tips if you have flu-like symptoms
- Stay home and get in touch promptly with your doctor.
- Get lots of rest, use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease symptoms and remember to drink plenty of liquids.
- Avoid social contacts that are not essential. Remember you are infectious two days before coming down with symptoms and until you have had no fever for 48 hours.