Swine Flu and the Elderly
Experts share insights on ways seniors can protect themselves against swine flu.
Pandemic. If the word has you a little nervous, you're not alone. Though a pandemic simply refers to an epidemic that's widespread, when applied to terms like novel influenza A (H1N1), H1N1 flu, or swine flu, it can sound confusing and a little scary.
Some perspective can help. Certainly the spread of H1N1 swine flu is serious. Yet so is seasonal flu, which hospitalizes more than 200,000 people a year in the U.S. Both types of flu have similar symptoms, including fatigue, chills, headache, body aches, stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, and fever. And if you get sick, the only way to tell which flu you have is to be tested by your doctor.
So what is it about swine flu that has people so nervous? Should seniors in particular be worried? To learn more, WebMD went to medical experts and got their answers to these and other questions about the H1N1 virus.
Why is swine flu a particular worry?
Swine flu is a novel form of the influenza virus, combining swine, human, and avian virus strains. Because it is new, people in general don't appear to have antibodies against it as they might against seasonal flu. That means potentially more people could get sick with this flu.
Are seniors particularly susceptible to swine flu?
H1N1 swine flu doesn't seem to be a big problem for seniors unless that person has a chronic underlying condition, says Thomas Yoshikawa, MD, professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Most H1N1 cases are occurring in younger people. "It appears that older persons, who have been exposed multiple times in their life time with various flu outbreaks, may have residual immunity of which some of it is against this H1N1 flu strain," Yoshikawa tells WebMD.
However, underlying health problems like heart and lung diseases or a compromised immune system "confers an increased risk of influenza, whether it's swine flu or another type of flu," says Sean X. Leng, MD, PhD, a geriatrician conducting research on influenza immunization in older adults and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Though healthy seniors haven't been particularly targeted by H1N1 swine flu, seasonal influenza remains a deadly risk for many, with roughly 36,000 people in the U.S. dying from flu-related causes every year. A yearly flu vaccination remains an important way to stay flu-free.
Should seniors get a swine flu vaccine if it becomes available?
"Absolutely yes," says Yoshikawa.
Leng agrees. "When the vaccine is available I would recommend my patients get it."
Yet while many experts expect a swine flu vaccine by fall, there won't initially be enough vaccine for everyone. That's why some officials are recommending that when the H1N1 flu vaccine is available, it should first be administered to pregnant women, health care workers, people taking care of infants less than 6 months old, children and young adults between 6 months to 24 years old, and those between 25 and 64 with underlying health problems.
Even when there is enough H1N1 vaccine to go around, it's important to remember that this vaccine won't protect against seasonal flu, too. You'll need to get a seasonal flu vaccination as well.
What steps can seniors take to protect themselves against swine flu?
The most common ways of getting the flu are being exposed to people with the flu who are sneezing, coughing -- even breathing -- nearby, or by touching objects that were previously handled by a person with flu.
"I'm telling my patients that if someone in the immediate family or close contact has any flu-like symptoms ... they need to stay away from those people; those people also need to isolate themselves and seek care," says Leng. Once you have symptoms of the flu, you should contact your doctor, says Leng.