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Updated 7:00 AM December 7, 2009

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Smart senior's guide to flu season

Those over 50 need to be immunized against seasonal flu. That's the most important step most older people can take to get safely through the flu season, says Dr. Karen Hall, a Geriatrics Center specialist.

And here's a lesser known fact: Older people who come down with flu-like symptoms should stay home but promptly contact their primary care physician to carefully monitor their symptoms. They may be priority candidates for antiviral drugs, usually best started within 48 hours of the flu's onset, to make their flu less severe and complications less likely.

"If you have a high fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches, don't wait. Call your health care provider and describe your symptoms," says Hall, an associate professor of geriatric medicine. "Anyone with shortness of breath or chest pain should go to an emergency room."

In this year's complicated flu season, there have been periodic shortages of vaccines for seasonal flu, which typically begins in late November, and for the H1N1 flu that's grabbing headlines as a new threat for people under age 64.

Hall says the first step in getting the appropriate vaccinations is to contact your primary care doctor to arrange for the vaccinations recommended for you. If you are a candidate for one or both types of flu vaccine but your doctor has none available, ask to be put on a waiting list.

For those middle-aged and older, advice on who should be vaccinated for each type of flu depends on your health status and your age. Here's a breakdown about who should get which vaccinations:

• Seasonal flu vaccine: All people 50 or older.

• Pneumonia vaccine: Those over 65, or under age 65 with a health condition that puts them at higher risk, should ask a doctor about getting a pneumonia vaccination.

• H1N1 vaccine: People ages 49-64 who have certain health conditions that put them at greater risk. People over 64 aren't eligible for H1N1 vaccine, because they are the most likely to already have some immunity due to earlier exposure to a similar flu strain.

Tips to avoid catching the flu

• Wash hands or use a hand sanitizer frequently.

• Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth.

• Practice good health habits: Get plenty of sleep, eat nutritiously, drink fluids and exercise.

• Avoid crowds and contact with people who are sick.

Tips if you have flu-like symptoms

• Stay home and promptly contact a doctor.

• Get lots of rest, use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease symptoms and remember to drink plenty of liquids.

• Avoid social contacts that are not essential. People with the flu are infectious two days before coming down with symptoms and until fever-free for 48 hours.

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