2008-10-15 / Seniors

The Savvy Senior

Flu Shots: Facts And Fiction

Dear Savvy Senior,

What are the facts on flu shots? Do they really help that much, and can a flu shot actually give you the flu?

Skeptical Senior

Dear Skeptical:

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 are the facts and fiction on flu shots.

The Facts

Each 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. Here are some key facts to know:

• While there's no foolproof way to prevent the flu, your best protection is a flu shot or the inhaled FluMist (FDAapproved only for healthy people ages 5 to 49) every fall. Flu shots are especially important for kids under 5, adults over 65, and anyone with medical conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis or heart disease, because they are at high risk for complications.

• Some studies done over the past year have indicated that the flu vaccine may not work as well in people over 70, but the evidence is not conclusive. Most health experts still highly recommend an annual flu shot for seniors, noting that even if the studies are correct, some protection is better than none.

• Most people who get a flu shot have no reaction to it, but up to 25 percent may have some redness and slight swelling at the site, and around 5 percent may experience a slight fever, chills and headache within 24 hours. These symptoms end within a few days.

• You need to get a flu shot every year because the flu virus mutates from year to year, so a vaccination from last season is ineffective against this year's strains.

• People who are allergic to eggs, latex, who have a history of Guillain- Barré syndrome, or who've had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past should not get a flu shot without consulting their doctor first. And people who are ill with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms pass.

Flu Fiction

Myths and misconceptions keep many people from getting flu shots. One of the most common misconceptions is that a flu shot will give you the flu. But the truth is that the vaccine is made from killed influenza viruses so it's impossible to get the flu from a flu shot. Some other common misconceptions are:

• Flu is just a bad cold. This is fiction. Although it's considered a respiratory infection, flu affects the entire body, causing high fever accompanied by body aches, headaches, nausea and dehydration. Even after the infection is gone (it can last up to two weeks), people can be weak for several more days.

• You can get the flu from wet hair or cold weather. Not true. You get the flu by coming into contact with someone who is infected. In the cold of the winter season, when people cluster indoors, exposure to the flu virus is more likely, but cold weather itself doesn't cause the flu.

• The flu shot is only for high-risk people. False. People at high risk definitely need the vaccination, but those at low risk also should get the shot to help keep the flu from spreading.

• If I haven't had the flu by December, it's too late. False again. Flu season can extend through May. Although it's never too late in the season to get the shot, the best time to get vaccinated is in October or November.

Savvy Tips: 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 vaccination site call your county health department, the CDC information line at 800-232-4636 or visit www.flucliniclocator.org.

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.

The Gazette does not endorse the contents of The Savvy Senior. Check with professionals about the contents of this column.

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