A shot of protection

No one likes to get sick, yet every year people take chances with their health by not getting the proper immunizations.

Seniors, as well as the rest of the population, need to be protected against influenza, diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus, and pneumonia. Seniors also need protection from shingles.

As flu season approaches, primary care providers often urge people to get a shot to protect them from the fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue associated with the virus.

Dr. Rashmikant S. Pandit, geriatric specialist/pulmonologist at Blair Medical Associates, said some seniors will faithfully get a flu shot every year. Others, he said, are convinced that they had a bad experience or know someone who got sick and will not get one.

But as the years go by, seniors may need to reconsider that thinking. As people get older, they are less likely to be able to fight the virus that causes the flu, Pandit said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu seasons are unpredictable but can be severe. Between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths range from 3,000 to about 49,000 people, the CDC states on its website.

“The flu is a significant respiratory illness and complications from the flu are very significant,” Pandit said.

Every year, people in the area are hospitalized for pneumonia, resulting from the flu, he said.

The problem is more common in seniors because their immune system may not be as strong as a younger person’s immune system.

“It gives the bacteria a chance to take control of things,” Pandit said.

He equated it to being involved in a physical fight.

“If you are tired and down and out, the other guy gets the best of you. If you are very rested, there is a good chance that you will do well,” he said.

While getting a flu shot is no guarantee that the recipient will not get sick, it can considerably reduce your chances, Pandit said.

He explained that many strains of the flu virus exist and that the CDC does research to determine which formula it believes will guard against the strains expected to be prevalent in a given year.

Viruses have the ability to constantly change, he said, making the CDC’s job more challenging.

The shot given at the doctor’s office or a pharmacy protects against at least three strains of the flu, he said.

As with the flu, more than one type of pneumonia exists, Pandit said.

The immunization protects against the pneumococcus bacteria, the most common form of pneumonia.

It is especially important to get the shot if a senior has a lung condition, Pandit said.

According to the CDC’s website, pneumonia not only infects the lungs but can infect blood, the brain and ears.

If a person gets a pneumonia shot before age 65, another one is recommended after age 65, Pandit said.

Another vaccine that seniors need to receive is Tdap or the one that guards against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. Any of the three can be a serious disease for adults.

Although the Tdap shot is first given in childhood, it needs to be repeated in adulthood or every 10 years regardless of age.

Diphtheria, a bacterial infection that affects the mucous membranes of the nose and throat, and pertussis or whooping cough rarely occur in the United States because of the immunizations. Both diseases make it difficult to breathe.

Tetanus or lockjaw occurs from a contaminated wound. It can be life-threatening and targets the muscles of the jaws and neck, making it difficult to swallow and breathe.

Lastly, seniors, ages 60 and older who have had the chicken pox, need to guard against shingles by getting a one-time vaccine.

According to the CDC, anyone 60 years of age or older should get the shingles vaccine, regardless of whether they recall having had chickenpox or not. Studies show that more than 99 percent of Americans ages 40 and older have had chickenpox, even if they don’t remember getting the disease.

And people who have had shingles can still get a shot to prevent future occurrences of the disease. Pandit said with the vaccine, there is not a 100 percent guarantee that a person will not get the shingles, but it may be a less severe case.

“Shingles are very powerful,” Pandit said.

With any of the shots, Pandit said the side effects are usually mild.

He said the person may experience a redness or soreness in the area where the shot was given, a low-grade fever or muscle aches. He said the symptoms go away in a day or two.

According to the website, flu and pneumonia shots are covered under Medicare. The Tdap and shingles immunizations are not covered by Medicare but may be covered by a senior’s Medicare drug plan or Part D.