The flu is nothing to sneeze at, especially if you're an older adult.
Anywhere from 140,000 to 710,000 Americans are projected to land in the hospital this year as a result of the flu and its complications, and 12,000 to 56,000 are expected to die from flu-related illnesses. Adults 65 and older will account for as many as 70 percent of the hospital stays and 85 percent of the deaths.
As people age, their immune system typically weakens and their ability to ward off diseases declines. That puts older adults at increased risk of the flu. Moreover, the virus can cause complications for those already struggling with chronic health problems.
As flu season gets underway, you'll want to wash your hands and stay away from sick people to reduce the spread of germs. But as useful as those preventive steps are, an annual vaccination remains the best way to help protect yourself against the flu virus.
You have several flu shot options. Besides the traditional flu vaccines that help protect against three strains of the virus, there are now "quadrivalent" vaccines that help protect against four strains.
This year, there are two vaccines designed specifically for people 65 and older. Both the "high-dose vaccine" and the "adjuvant vaccine" are supposed to provide a stronger immune response and, therefore, better protection against infection when you're exposed to the flu virus.
Talk to your doctor about which flu shot option is right for you.
Get your vaccination as soon as possible. The vaccine will protect you within two weeks. The flu season typically begins about now, peaks in January or February and runs through May.
If you're enrolled in Medicare Part B, your flu shot won't cost you anything, as long as your doctor, health clinic or pharmacy agrees not to charge you more than Medicare pays. There's no deductible or co-payment. The same is true for the vaccines designed especially for older adults.
If you were vaccinated last year, you'll still need another shot this year, since your immunity to flu viruses wanes after a year. Also, the types of viruses usually change from season to season, so new vaccines are made each year to fight that season's most likely strains.
Despite the higher risk that flu and its complications pose to older adults, the vaccination rate within this age group remains much lower than it should be. Only 63 percent of adults 65 and older are vaccinated each year, far short of the public health goal of 90 percent for this group.
Why? Some older adults don't understand that the flu can be serious and life-threatening, so they don't think a flu shot is worth their time and effort. Others resist annual vaccination because they believe it's risky, even though decades of experience have shown flu shots to be safe and effective.
If you're concerned about a serious allergic reaction or some other medical condition that may make the flu vaccine unsafe for you, you should consult your doctor before a vaccination. Otherwise, it's important to remember that you can't get the flu from the flu shot.
Side effects are rare. Most people notice nothing after their vaccination. A few may have sore muscles or a slight fever. But those side effects usually last just a day or two.
No matter how healthy or youthful you may feel, don't wait to be vaccinated. When you get your shot, you'll protect not only yourself but also those around you. By avoiding the flu, you'll avoid giving it to family and friends.
BOB MOOS is Southwest public affairs officer for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.