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Dear Savvy Senior,
Does a flu shot really help that much? I just turned 66 and rarely get sick, but my wife keeps nagging me to get one. What can you tell me?
A flu shot doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu (influenza), but it does lower your risk. And if you do happen to get sick, you probably won’t get as sick as you would without it. Here’s what you should know.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see www.cdc.gov/flu), every year 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, more than 200,000 people have to be hospitalized for it, and around 36,000 will die because of it – most of whom are over age 65. While there’s no full-proof way to prevent the flu, your best protection is a flu shot every fall.
Who Needs It?
Flu shots are for almost anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu, but it’s especially important for people who have a high risk of developing serious flu complications, or people who live with or care for those at high risks, including:
* People age 65 and older.
* Nursing home or long-term-care residents.
* Pregnant women.
* Children 6-23 months of age.
* Anyone with weakened immunity or chronic disease.
* Health care workers.
Some people should “not” be vaccinated without first consulting their doctor. They include:
* People who’ve had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past.
* People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
* People who have a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome.
* People who are ill with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms pass.
There are various myths and misconceptions that keep many people from get a flu shot. One common fear is that a flu shot will actually give you the flu. But the fact is that the vaccine is made from killed influenza viruses so it’s impossible to get the flu from a flu shot. Here are some other facts you should know:
* Effective protection: A flu shot in healthy adults and children can cut their risk of catching the flu by 70 to 90 percent. In older adults (65 plus) however, the protection drops significantly, but if you do get sick it tends to be less severe.
* Annual event: You need to get a flu shot every year because your immunity to the flu declines over a year’s time and because flu viruses change.
* November, but getting vaccinated in December or even later can still be beneficial. Flu season usually starts in early November and lasts as late as May.
* Side effects: For most people, the side effects from the flu shot are very minor – some soreness or swelling may occur where the shot was given. However, 5 to 10 percent experience mild side effects like headaches, a low fever or achiness which usually lasts for about a day after the vaccination.
* Other options: Healthy people under age 50 (who are not pregnant) have the option to take the nasal spray FluMist rather than a shot. There are also three antiviral drugs that can help prevent the flu. Ask you doctor about these options.
Where to Go
You can get a flu shot at your doctor’s office, local clinic or various other locations. Medicare Part B pays for flu shots but if you’re not covered, there are plenty of places that offer them for free. To help you locate a flu vaccination site in your area, call your county health department or call the CDC hotline at 800-232-2522, or visit www.flucliniclocator.org.
Savvy Tip: Another important vaccination for seniors (age 65 and older) is the pneumococcal vaccine. Pneumococcal pneumonia causes up to 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, half of which could be prevented by this vaccine. You can receive this vaccination on the same day that you get the flu shot (or any other time of the year), and for those covered under Medicare Part B, it’s free. Most people need the shot just once. Ask your doctor about this important vaccination or visit www.cdc.gov/nip.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” books.
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