By Sarah Fulham, MD

The holiday season is supposed to be full of comfort and joy. It coincides with the peak flu season however, which tends to be full of ache and misery.

Common flu symptoms include sore throats, congestion, coughing, body aches, chills and fever. Some people may experience diarrhea or vomiting. While these effects are at best irritating and at worst incapacitating for the average adult, the flu can be especially hard on older people who tend to have weaker immune systems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths and between 50 and 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations in the United States occur in people ages 65 and older. This year’s most common strain, known¬ as H3N2, is associated with more flu-related hospitalizations and deaths. The combination of those two facts could lead to a very severe flu season for our seniors.

Sarah Fulham, MD
Sarah Fulham, MD

Vaccines are still the best way to prevent getting the flu. Flu strains are a little different every year, so staying up to date on your vaccinations is important. Ideally, you would have gotten your flu shot back in the fall. But with peak flu season typically running through February, it is definitely not too late.

This year there is a special flu vaccine for people 65 years and older in addition to the regular vaccine. It is called the Fluzone High-Dose influenza vaccine, and is manufactured by Sanofi Pasteur, Inc. to contain four times the amount of antigen found in a regular flu shot. Antigen is the part of the vaccine that makes antibodies to fight the flu virus. Since older people tend to have a lower immune response, the Fluzone High-Dose vaccine helps their bodies compensate.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the high-dose vaccine was 24% more effective in preventing flu in the people they studied who were 65 years of age or older. Most people had no adverse effects from the vaccine. Others had similar effects to a regular flu vaccine, including mild and temporary pain and swelling at the injection site, headache, muscle aches and fever.

Good health habits are also important for preventing or spreading the flu. Remember these six important tips:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick so you won’t catch it.
  • If you are sick, stay home as much as possible so your virus won’t spread.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze
  • Germs are most often spread through touching your eyes, nose or mouth after coming into contact with a contaminated area. Try to avoid touching those areas.
  • Wash your hands frequently whether or not you are sick. This will help protect you from germs.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces in the home.

If you are over 65 and develop flu symptoms, see your health practitioner as soon as possible. Antiviral drugs are most helpful when started during the early stages of the virus. The longer you wait, the greater your risk is for other health complications.

Sarah Fulham, MD is a board certified internist at Brattleboro Internal Medicine, a department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.. She can be reached at 802-851-8787.