Flu season is always a challenging time. But now, during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself - especially if you’re an older American.
People who are 65+ are among the highest risk groups for developing severe complications from the flu. “Roughly 70% percent to 85% of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in people 65 and older,” says Sean Marchese, a registered nurse and oncology writer at The Mesothelioma Center.
What’s the best weapon to keep viruses at bay? Keeping your immune system healthy and strong.
It’s not always easy. As we get older, our immune systems tend to get weaker and change in several significant ways. So, we have to work harder to keep them strong, according to Dr. Scott Kaiser, family physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
“Flu shots are extremely important for everyone this year, not only to help prevent the spread of the flu, but also to keep immune systems strong during COVID-19,” says Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic. “When patients get sick with the flu, it is just another opportunity for their immune systems to become hyperactive, reducing their chances of fighting off COVID-19 should they become infected. I am encouraging patients, especially those over the age of 50, to be doing everything possible to reduce extra strain on their immune systems and their health systems.”
There are two vaccines to provide greater protection to patients age 65 and older, says Ann Philbrick, associate professor at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy and Medical School.
“The first is called Fluad, and it is the normal flu vaccine with an adjuvant, which is a particle that makes it work better,” says Philbrick. “The other is Fluzone High-Dose. This contains four times the amount of antigen that is in the regular flu vaccine.”
She suggests asking your physician or pharmacist if these options are available.
It’s also important to get a flu shot at the right time. Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), says October is the best time to get vaccinated.
“You’ll get protected before flu season starts - usually sometime in November - and your protection should carry you through March of next year,” says Schaffner. “If you happen to miss October, get your vaccine anyway, because flu cases usually peak in January or February in the United States.”
“Aim for a plate full of colorful fruits and vegetables for important micronutrients, vitamins and antioxidants, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates,” says Kaiser. Also helpful, he notes, is to include foods high in specific vitamins and minerals, like zinc and vitamin C, that are linked to healthy immune function.
While it would be nice to get all our vitamins and minerals from food, most of us will need to add supplements to attain optimal immune system health.
Studies show zinc helps keep the immune system strong. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends 11 mg of zinc a day for adult men, and 8 mg a day for adult women.
In a recent Instagram Live with actress Jennifer Garner, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested taking vitamin D and C supplements for immune system health, and said he takes them himself.
NIH recommends both vitamin D and C for immune health. The recommended vitamin D amount for adults under 70 is 600 IU (15 mcg) a day; people over 70 should take 800 IU (20 mcg a day). The recommended vitamin C amounts are 90 mg a day for adult men and 75 mg a day for adult women.
Dr. Michael Platt of Platt Wellness Center in Palm Desert, Calif., suggests taking vitamin D in the vitamin D3 form with vitamin K2 (MK-7) to prevent vitamin D from putting calcium into the arteries. “The D3 should not be in a liquid suspension or a gelcap, because oil impairs the absorption of D3 by at least 50%,” he says. Platt recommends taking a capsule with powder that has a combination of D3 and vitamin K2.
In addition to getting a flu shot and taking zinc and vitamins D and C, consider these tips for a healthy immune system:
All the precautions against COVID-19, including washing hands, social distancing and wearing masks, may also help lessen the chances of getting the flu.
After all, says Kaiser, “No matter how many wonderful things you might do to boost your immune system, the best way to avoid getting the flu is to protect yourself from getting exposed to the virus in the first place.”
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