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It’s not ‘Just the Flu’ for Seniors and People with Chronic Health Conditions

“I’m not the same person. The person before just kind of took life for granted. And now I cherish every moment I have because I know it can be taken away very quickly,” says Lisa Pellerin, a mother and a nurse. She shared these words as she recounted an experience so devastating to her health that it changed her entire perspective on life. It wasn’t cancer or a heart attack… it was the flu.

The Flu is Nothing to Sneeze At

Surprisingly, the flu is a source of worry for only 8 percent of adults 50 years of age and older, according to a recent survey. And, even if they were to get the flu, the majority (80 percent) of respondents only saw themselves as being at average or below average risk for flu-related complications. Unfortunately, misconceptions surrounding the flu can be dangerous and especially so for people in “high risk categories.”

Adults 50 years of age and older are more likely than younger age groups to have a chronic illness, such as asthma or other lung disease, heart disease or diabetes. The flu can exacerbate symptoms of these and other conditions and lead to serious complications, like pneumonia – or sometimes even death. During the 2017-2018 flu season, nearly 80,000 people died and more than 950,000 people were hospitalized due to flu and flu-related illnesses; and fewer than 4-in-10 U.S. adults (37.1 percent) were vaccinated against flu, fewer than in previous years, according to the CDC.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 70 percent of adults ages 50 to 64 have at least one chronic illness. Lisa is among this group, living with both asthma and diabetes. The flu landed her in the hospital. “I just kept getting worse. I was in the hospital for three weeks,” she said. Lisa continues to struggle with shortness of breath and a persistent cough, but she’s grateful to be alive and recuperating. Research shows that individuals with heart disease are up to 10 times more likely to have a heart attack within three days of flu infection, and people with diabetes have six times increased risk of flu-related hospitalization.

Give Yourself a Better Shot at Flu Recovery

Unfortunately, there is low awareness of the connection between chronic health conditions and serious flu-related complications. A new survey from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) revealed that:

·      Less than a quarter of U.S. adults recognize that people with heart disease (24 percent) and diabetes (22 percent) are at greater risk for flu-related complications.

·      Less than 20 percent of U.S. adults are aware that heart attack (16 percent), worsening of diabetes (16 percent), stroke (13 percent) and disability (10 percent) can occur as potential complications of flu.

Aside from preventative germ-fighting measures, like hand-washing, vaccination is the best way to help protect people from the flu and help reduce the risk of flu-related hospitalization and death. That’s why the American Lung Association created the MyShot campaign in collaboration with Sanofi Pasteur. The campaign helps educate adults 50 years of age and older about the potential dangers of flu and the critical importance of getting a flu shot every year.

“Flu causes inflammation in the body that can result in serious complications,” said Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer, American Lung Association. “For the more than 31 million people living with lung disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, flu can worsen their condition and lead to a loss of lung function” NFID Medical Director Dr. William Schaffner agrees, “It is essential for everyone age 6 months and older to receive an annual flu vaccine. For people with conditions like heart disease, diabetes or lung disease, it is an important part of managing their condition, like taking a statin, checking their glucose or using an inhaler.”

For adults, it’s important to know that there are multiple options depending on your age and whether you have one or more chronic health conditions. In fact, 92 percent of those hospitalized for flu during the 2017-2018 season had an underlying medical condition that put them at risk for serious flu-related complications. A doctor can advise which option is best for each individual, taking into consideration age and other factors such as chronic conditions.

Flu vaccinations help protect more than just the people who receive them – they help prevent the spread of influenza to family, friends, colleagues and communities, and especially those more vulnerable to the flu such as young children and those with weakened immune systems. JoJo O’Neal’s bout with the flu turned into a family issue, infecting not only JoJo but her sister who has COPD and her niece. “I started to realize my health decisions can impact others,” she said. Now, she does everything she can to help protect herself and others from the flu which, for JoJo, includes getting the flu vaccination.


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