Influenza, commonly known as “the flu,” has been around for centuries. In 1918, the Spanish Influenza caused one of the most devastating pandemics in world history, claiming as many as 50 million lives worldwide.
Luckily, pandemics are not frequent occurrences, and no outbreak since 1918 has come close to causing such widespread harm, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website Flu.gov. On average, global outbreaks of influenza occur every 30 or 40 years. Most recently in 2009, the H1N1 "Swine Flu" got its start in Mexico, and has caused upward of 18,000 deaths worldwide.
While serious pandemics are rare, the rise and fall of flu season is a recurring presence in our lives. Every year, the flu poses a threat, infecting hundreds of thousands of Americans and causing complications that can even result in death. And every year, seniors are most at risk for these life-threatening complications.
Basic Facts about the Flu
Like all viruses, the flu survives by reproducing within a host – in this case, a human host. People transmit the flu to one another through sneezing, coughing and physical contact. Because the flu is so contagious, one way to avoid infection is to stay away from those you know are infected; likewise, if you are sick, a good way to protect others is to keep a safe distance whenever practical. Washing hands and getting a lot of rest will also increase your chance of avoiding the flu during flu season.
The most typical flu symptoms include:
• Sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
However, people over the age of 65 are at increased risk for longer, more severe symptoms. Of the 35,000 people who die each year from flu-related complications, at least 90 percent are seniors, according to DHHS statistics. Seniors are especially susceptible to complications because they tend to have weakened immune systems, as well as other medical conditions that the flu can make worse. The flu often leads to pneumonia in seniors who have not received the pneumococcal vaccine (which is free under Medicare). People with heart, lung or kidney disease are likely to see these conditions worsened by the flu.
The Best Prevention
The most effective way to protect yourself against the flu is to get an annual vaccination. The influenza vaccine is free under Medicare, and guarantees immunity from the most prevalent strains of influenza every year. Vaccines generally become available just before the start of flu season, which runs from October through May. The earlier you get your shot, the better. However, getting a flu shot as late as December will still be valuable since flu season lasts until early spring.
You can get a flu shot at most drug stores, such as Walgreen’s, Rite Aid, CVS. Most hospitals also offer flu shot clinics. If you are over 65, taking the time to get a flu shot could be a life-saving decision.
The influenza vaccine consists of three different strains of inactivated influenza. When these strains are introduced into your body, your immune system responds by building up the right antibodies to destroy the viruses. Although the viruses can’t make you sick, your immune system responds to them by building up protection. If you are infected by a real live virus later in the season, your body will already have built up the antibodies to destroy it before you get sick.
Getting the vaccination every year is critical to maintaining immunity. This is because each year different strains of influenza are evolving and spreading. Experts spend all year studying incidents of infection worldwide, to determine which strains are most likely to emerge during flu season. They choose the three strains most likely to occur and include those strains in the vaccine.
Will The Vaccine Make Me Sick?
The influenza vaccine will not give you the flu. The viruses in the vaccine have been killed and cannot infect your body. If you feel any different after receiving your flu shot, it is most likely because your body is building up antibodies to fight the inactivated virus. This means that the vaccine and your body are both doing their jobs.
In one test reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one group of people was given the flu shot. Another group was given salt water injections. The only difference between the two groups was that those who received the flu shots experienced more soreness in their arm. There was no difference at all in flu like symptoms experienced after the injections. These results have been used as proof that the influenza vaccine does not make people sick with the flu.
For more information about receiving a flu shot covered by Medicare, call 1-800-633-4227 or visit Medicare’s Web site at www.medicare.gov. For more information about influenza and vaccination, call the CDC National Information Hotline at 800-232-4636. or visit CDC’s website: www.cdc.gov/vaccines.