Seniors More Susceptible To Flu, Its Complications Annual Fall Vaccination Recommended

November 28, 1990|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

Most seniors would rather play host to their grandchildren than to an unwelcome winter visitor who sends chills down their backs.

So they make a point of getting a flu shot every year.

Chills are just one symptom of influenza, which in elderly people can open the door to more serious complications such as pneumonia.

"The immune system tends to lose its effectiveness as you get older," said Dr. Park W. Espenschade Jr., a Westminster internist.

Not only are the elderly more likely to catch the flu, but they can also succumb to pneumococcal bacteria that take advantage of the body's weakened state while it's fighting the flu virus, he said.

Espenschade and state and county health departments recommend that everyone over 65 be vaccinated against influenza every year in the early fall, and against pneumococcal pneumonia every five years.

The important thing is to get vaccinated now, because it takes four to six weeks after the shot for your body to make enough antibodies to protect you from the flu virus, which typically shows up between Thanksgiving and Easter, Espenschade said.

Although seniors are more likely to catch the flu, the vaccine is more effective with them than with younger people, Espenschade said. In general, the vaccine is 65 percent to 75 percent effective.

The Carroll County Health Department gave 1,800 flu shots this year during its annual fall clinics. That's about 600 more than last year, probably because the department better promoted and publicized the service, said Larry Leitch, deputy health officer.

Even if you missed the clinics, you can still get a flu shot and a pneumonia vaccine from any local physician, Espenschade said. The shots are covered by Medicare and Medicaid, and by most insurance plans.

With the wide availability of the shots at senior centers, nursing homes and even from large employers such as Random House, "it's almost impossible not to get a flu shot," Espenschade said.

In addition to people over 65, others who should get flu shots include: * Nursing home residents, workers and volunteers.

* Others who work or volunteer among elderly people or in health-care centers.

* Adults or children with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, asthma and other lung or heart-related problems.

* Anyone who works in a closed space with a lot of people, since the flu is passed from person to person through droplets released when a person coughs, sneezes or talks.

People who are allergic to eggs should not get a flu shot, because chicken eggs are used to grow the viruses used in the vaccine, Espenschade said.

For these people, there is a drug called Symmetrell or Amantadine that can help if given when flu symptoms first appear, Espenschade said. The drug works only on the Type-A flu virus, by preventing it from reproducing.

It doesn't kill the virus, but allows less of it to invade the body's healthy cells, Espenschade said.

Symptoms of the flu are chills, fever, runny nose, coughing, weakness, loss of appetite, and aching head, arms and legs.

That doesn't sound much different from a common cold, Espenschade said, and many people mistake a cold for the flu. A definitive lab test for everyone who comes down with these symptoms would be a waste of time, especially because both illnesses call for the same kind of care, he said.

Whether it's the flu or a cold, stay in bed, have a box of tissues nearby and drink plenty of fluids to help your body flood the virus out, Espenschade said.

"The elderly can get dehydrated fairly quickly," he said, so they should pay particular attention to replacing fluids.

"Most people use an antihistamine" to dry up their runny noses, Espenschade said, "but you are working against what the body is trying to do."

And while people traditionally take aspirin or acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) to reduce the fever, some new evidence indicates that could be counterproductive, Espenschade said.

"Your body raises its temperature because the virus can't reproduce much above 100 degrees. So the fever people get with the flu is actually a defense mechanism," he said.

While no evidence has shown that lowering your temperature with aspirin will make you sicker, it could extend the symptoms, Espenschade said.

People over 65 who get the flu should keep an eye on their temperature, though, because it can signal the onset of pneumonia, Espenschade said.

If the thermometer shows 101 degrees or higher, there is a 90 percent chance of a bacterial infection such as pneumonia, and the person should see a doctor, he said.

If the fever is at only 100 but lasts for two to three days, that's another signal to see a doctor, Espenschade said.

The flu is not caused by a single virus, but by two main types -- the more common Type A and the usually less serious Type B -- which put on a new "coat" or set of characteristics every few years.

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