It is an unfortunate reality that the flu season is coming while we’re already involved in a pandemic — and older adults are at risk for severe complications from both flu and COVID-19.
The first thing to remember is that getting the flu vaccine remains a wise move for everyone. That is especially true for those 65 and over.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the last 10 years, 336,000 people died from the flu in the United States. Furthermore, the CDC estimates between 70% and 85% of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in people 65 and older. Between 50% and 70% of hospitalizations for flu are for people 65 and older.
“There is a greater emphasis than ever on going out and getting your flu shot,” said Dr. Greg Johnson, chief medical officer of the Good Samaritan Society. “The flu shot itself isn’t going to be protective against COVID, but in the absence of a cure or vaccine, you have to manage the things you can manage.”
Influenza shares symptoms with the common cold. Both illnesses often include a cough, sore throat and a runny nose. The flu can be much more severe, however, particularly with those over 65.
While the flu varies in severity, the CDC lists the following symptoms:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults
The good news is that the vaccine reduces the likelihood of getting the flu, but also, according to several studies, lessens the severity for those who get vaccinated but still get sick. It reduces the risk of flu-associated hospitalization for people of all ages and serves as an important preventive tool for people with chronic health conditions.
Seniors at greatest risk
“Anytime we look to vaccinate a population for anything, we want to prioritize those at the greatest risk,” Dr. Johnson said. “People in the 65 age group are higher risk for experiencing complications related to the flu. That would be the population I would want to target and tell them ‘You really should have this vaccination.’”
The term “flu season” does not have a specific starting point but influenza levels typically rise in the fall in the United States and peak in January and February. Dr. Johnson recommends getting the flu shot by the end of October, though getting it later than that is much better than not getting vaccinated at all.
While the flu and COVID-19 are two different diseases, one avoids the flu in the same way one avoids the other. That is: wash your hands before eating, avoid putting your hands near your face or in your mouth, and wear a mask over your nose and mouth when around others.
“People are focused on COVID right now, but the flu can have serious complications,” Dr. Johnson said. “Just because our focus is on COVID, it doesn’t change anything about how threatening influenza can be.”
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