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What is influenza (flu)?
Influenza, also called the flu, is an infection of the nose, throat and lungs caused by a virus. Influenza is also known as seasonal flu. Symptoms are similar to those of a cold but worse and they will last longer. Influenza symptoms include:
- Muscle pain
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Extreme tiredness and cough
Anyone can get the flu; most will get better in a few weeks. However, some will not be so lucky. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States, on average:
- 5 percent to 20 percent of the population will get the flu
- More than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications
- About 36,000 people die from flu
The influenza virus reduces the body's ability to fight other infections and can be dangerous for the very young or elderly people, and anyone who has a chronic condition (asthma, diabetes, or heart disease) or a weakened immune system. The highest rates of hospitalization and death are in older Americans. Common complications of the flu include:
- Bacterial pneumonia
- Sinus and ear infections
- Causing preexisting health conditions to worsen
- Death (mostly in people over 65)
The flu spreads through the air and via surfaces. Coughing, sneezing, and talking will spread tiny droplets that contain the influenza virus. The droplet will stay in air or on the surfaces or objects touched by the infected person. If you share airspace, have face-to-face contact, use the same equipment (telephones, keyboards) or shake hands with the infected person there is a good chance you will be exposed. The virus can be spread beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5-7 days after becoming sick. That means that the flu can be spread even before the infected person feels sick. If the flu is around it's almost impossible to avoid exposure to it.
How effective is the flu shot in preventing influenza?
A flu shot does an excellent job of protecting you from the flu, but it is not perfect. A few people will still get the flu after being immunized. However, they tend to be less sick than those who were not vaccinated.
Why should seniors get the flu shot?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over age 50 get an annual flu shot. There are many good reasons for that. Research has consistently shown that those who are vaccinated are less likely to get the flu, and if they do catch the flu they will have fewer complications than those who don't get immunized. Studies have also shown a drop in hospitalizations and the death rate in immunized seniors when compared to the non-immunized. Seniors should get their flu shot as early in the flu season as possible. Flu season starts in October and ends in March.
Why do I need a flu shot every year?
The flu shot is different than other vaccinations; it does not give you lifelong protection. The reason for that is the viruses that cause the illness change every year and the vaccine must also be changed each year to ensure that you are protected. The flu shot this year can be very different from past years. Therefore you need a shot every year.
Is the flu shot safe?
Yes, flu shots are very safe. They are made with killed viruses that are designed to fool your body into making antibodies against flu-causing viruses. You may experience some light side affects, such as a little soreness and swelling at the site of the shot. A few people develop mild symptoms of the flu (about 5 to 10 percent).
You should not get vaccinated:
- If you have a severe allergy to eggs
- If you've had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past
- If you've developed Guillain-barre syndrome within 6 weeks of a flu shot
- If you are ill and have a fever you should wait until you are better to get vaccinated
- If you have any of the above, talk with your doctor before you get a flu shot
When should I get a flu shot?
The best time to get a flu shot is from early October to mid-November. It takes one to two weeks to develop antibodies against the disease. Getting your shot early in the flu season will protect you for the entire season.
Does Medicare cover flu shots?
- If you have Medicare Part B, your flu shot is free every year (there's no copay and it doesn't apply toward your deductible).
- The shot must be ordered by your doctor.
- Your doctor must accept Medicare and not charge more than Medicare will pay.
- Members of Medicare Advantage Plans need to ask their health plan for details on their coverage for the flu shot (they must cover at least what Medicare does – they may cover more).
- Low cost flu shots (about $10) are available at many clinics and pharmacies at the beginning of flu season.
Where can I get a flu shot?
Here are some options for getting a flu shot:
- Doctor's Office
- Health Departments
- Offices - many offer flu shots for employees