It is almost here - cold and flu season. The 2012013 influenza (flu) season could begin as early as October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This time of year when I call my Aunt Helen, I ask her if she has plans to get her flu shot. I remind her that now is the perfect time to consider planning to get that seasonal flu vaccination as the best defense against the flu. As people get older, their immune systems may weaken and this may make seniors more susceptible to complications from the seasonal flu. According to the CDC, approximately 50,000 adults die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. Pneumonia and influenza are the fifth leading cause of death in older adults in the U.S.
Influenza, also called the "flu," is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. There are more than 200,000 hospitalizations from influenza on average every year. An average of 36,000 Americans die annually due to influenza and its complications - most are people 65 years of age and older. It's also good to know that Medicare provides coverage for one flu vaccine and its administration per influenza season for seniors and other Medicare beneficiaries with no copay or deductible.
One question my Aunt Helen asks is "How do I know if I have the flu or a cold?" Here are four key points that help distinguish the cold from the flu:
Fever is usually present with the flu, but rare with a cold.
Headache is a major symptom of the flu, but rare with colds.
Aches and pains can be severe with the flu, but usually mild in colds.
Extreme exhaustion can occur with the flu, but not with a cold.
Another question she asks is "What can I do to prevent getting the flu?" The CDC recommends "Take 3" steps.
Step 1: Take the time to get your annual flu shot. The best method to prevent the flu is to have a flu shot annually.
Step 2: Take everyday preventative actions to try to prevent the spread of germs by covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it. Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way. Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
Step 3: If you get the flu - take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them. They are different from antibiotics. They are prescription medicines (pills, liquid or an inhaled powder) and are not available over-the-counter. Antiviral drugs can make illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. They may also prevent serious flu complications. For people with high risk factors treatment with an antiviral drug can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay. Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started within two days of getting sick, but starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person has a high-risk health or is very sick from the flu. Follow your doctor's instructions for taking this drug.
Hopefully these basic facts and preventative tips will help make a difference this year to prevent the spread of colds and flu to you and help avoid potentially serious complications. If you have any questions, ask your health care provider. More information available online at cdc.gov/flu/protect/preventing.htm.
Editor's note: Gladys Polzien, RN, MSN, CHPN is director of operations at Aspirus Keweenaw Home Health and Hospice.