Health Article

What to Do About the Flu
Source: National Institute on Aging

Each winter, millions of people suffer from the flu, a highly contagious infection. It spreads easily from person to person mainly when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Flu – the short name for influenza – is caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It usually is a mild disease in healthy children, young adults, and middle-aged people. However, flu can be life threatening in older adults and in people of any age who have chronic illnesses such as diabetes or heart, lung, or kidney diseases

If you are a Medicare beneficiary and have received a phone call to participate in a survey of flu and pneumonia vaccine utilization and would like additional information you can visit the official project website, send an e-mail to, or call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-MEDICARE. HCFA appreciates the participation of the selected Medicare beneficiaries in this survey. The information these studies provide will help HCFA to better its efforts to improve the quality of the health care services provided to Medicare beneficiaries.

Can Flu Be Prevented?

A flu shot can greatly lower your chances of getting the flu. Much of the illness and death caused by flu can be prevented by a yearly flu shot.

The cost of the flu shot is covered by Medicare. Many private health insurance plans also pay for the flu shot. You can get a flu shot at your doctor’s office. You also may be able to get a flu shot from your local health department or from other health care providers.

No vaccine gives complete protection, and the flu shot is no exception. In older people and those with certain chronic illnesses, the flu shot often is less effective in preventing flu than in reducing symptoms and the risk of serious illness and death. Studies have shown that the flu shot reduces hospitalization by about 70 % and death by about 85 % among older people who are not in nursing homes. Among nursing home residents, the flu shot reduces the risk of hospitalization by about 50%, the risk of pneumonia by about 60%, and the risk of death by 75 to 80%.

Who Should Get the Flu Shot?

According to the Federal Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the following people are at risk for serious illness from the flu and should get a flu shot every year:

People 65 years of age and older
Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
Adults and children who have chronic heart or lung diseases
Adults and children with diabetes, kidney disease, or severe forms of anemia
Health care workers in contact with people in high-risk groups
Caregivers or people who live with someone in a high-risk group
When is the Best Time to Get the Flu Shot?

In the United States, flu season usually occurs from November until April. Most people get the flu between late December and early March. The best time to get your flu shot is between September and mid-November. It takes about 1 to 2 weeks after you get the shot to develop protection.

Does the Shot Cause Side Effects?

The flu shot does not cause side effects in most people. Fewer than one-third of those who get the shot have some soreness, redness, or swelling on the arm where the shot is given. These side effects, which can last up to 2 days, rarely interfere with a person’s daily activities. About 5 to 10 % of people have mild side effects such as headache or low-grade fever for about a day after vaccination.

The flu shot is made from killed flu viruses, which cannot cause the flu. With very rare exceptions, the danger from getting flu – and possibly pneumonia – is far greater than the danger from the side effects of the shot.

One of these rare exceptions is people who have a severe allergy to eggs. The viruses for flu vaccines are grown in eggs and may cause serious reactions in people who are severely allergic to eggs. People who have a severe allergy to eggs should not get the flu shot.

Why Do You Need A Flu Shot Every Year?

Preventing flu is hard because flu viruses change all the time. This year’s flu virus usually is slightly different from last year’s virus. Every year the flu shot is updated to include the most current flu virus strains. That’s one reason why flu shots will protect you for only 1 year.

What Are the Symptoms of the Flu?

Flu can cause fever, chills, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, as well as headache, muscle aches, and often extreme fatigue. Although nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea can sometimes accompany the flu, especially in children, gastrointestinal symptoms rarely occur. The illness that people call "stomach flu" is not influenza.

It’s easy to confuse a common cold with the flu. Overall, cold symptoms are milder and don’t last as long as the flu.

How Serious Is Flu?

Most people who get the flu recover completely in 1 to 2 weeks, but some people develop serious and possibly life-threatening complications. While your body is busy fighting off the flu, you may be less able to resist a second infection. Older people and people with chronic illnesses run the greatest risk of getting secondary infections, especially pneumonia. In an average year, flu leads to about 20,000 deaths nationwide and many more hospitalizations.

How Is Flu Treated?

If you get the flu, rest in bed, drink plenty of fluids, and take medication such as aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve fever and discomfort.

Call your doctor if you have any signs of flu and:

Your fever lasts; you may have a more serious infection.
You have breathing or heart problems or other serious health problems.
You are taking drugs to fight cancer or other drugs that weaken your body’s natural defenses against illness.
You feel sick and don’t seem to be getting better.
You have a cough that begins to produce phlegm.
You are worried about your health.
Antibiotics are not effective against flu viruses. However, four drugs have been approved to treat people who get the flu:

amantadine (Symmetrel)
rimantadine (Flumadine)
zanamivir (Relenza)
oseltamivir (Tamiflu)

When taken within 48 hours after the onset of illness, these drugs reduce the duration of fever and other symptoms. These drugs are only available by prescription.

Facts About Flu

The flu can be very dangerous for people 65 and older.
The flu can be prevented.
A flu shot is necessary each fall for people in high-risk groups.
The flu shot is covered by Medicare.
The flu shot is safe. It can’t cause the flu.
The flu shot and the pneumococcal vaccine can be given at the same time.

For More Information

For more information about health and aging, contact the National Institute on Aging Information Center at 1-800-222-22225 or 1-800-222-4225 (TTY). The website address is The NIA distributes a number of other free Age Pages, including "Shots for Safety."

Information about flu and other adult immunizations also is available from the following groups.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Immunization Information Hotline

Food and Drug Administration

American Lung Association

National Coalition for Adult Immunization
Suite 750
4733 Bethesda Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814