Staying healthy during the flu season and beyond

Cold and flu season is upon us. Doctors and other health professionals routinely encourage immunizations for adults over age 60. But why this emphasis as we age?

With age, our immune system begins to weaken. This means we are more susceptible to certain infections. These infections can range from a minor irritation to a life-threatening condition. Prevention is the least costly and most effective method. The best prevention involves the common self-health steps: eating right, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly. The Hawaii Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention add two more to this list: regular hand washing and immunizations.

Hand washing eliminates germs better than any other method. Several years ago when the United States experienced a severe flu vaccine shortage, one school district implemented a hand washing campaign in all of its elementary schools. That flu season, there were fewer absences than previous years while there still had been plenty of flu vaccines. The reason? Proper hand washing.

We have all heard this advice, but it’s a good reminder and works for all ages – not just elementary school ages.

Wash hands: after coughing, sneezing or blowing nose; after playing or working outside; before preparing and eating food; after using the restroom; and after playing with animals. To wash hands, use warm, soapy water for 20 seconds, then rinse thoroughly. Dry hands and use a towel to turn off faucet and open door.

Maui’s University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension is a great local resource for hand-washing information. Lynn Nakamura-Tengan coordinates a “hands on” program called Germ City.

The simulation helps participants identify and eliminate germs in the spots they love to hang out. To learn more about this program, contact the local Extension Office at 244-3242 and ask about Germ City. Resources are also online at

Immunizations are an important second line of defense.

They not only protect the person who receives the vaccination, but also those around them. If someone at home has a poor immune system, extra caution should be taken so outside infections do not enter the home. Extra caution includes all the steps above, along with proper immunizations of all household members.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following immunizations for adults over age 60:

* Annual influenza vaccine. Several different vaccine types are available. Some are approved for all ages over 6 months, others for ages 18 to 49 and yet others for ages 18 to 64. Talk with your doctor or health care professional to determine which is right for you.

* Tdap vaccine. This vaccine is just needed once. It protects adults against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough).

* Td vaccine. After the Tdap vaccine, a tetanus vaccine is only needed every 10 years (or sooner if there is a run-in with a very rusty object).

* Pneumococcal vaccine. Pneumococcus can cause many different illnesses. One of the most serious for older adults is pneumonia, but it also can cause ear infections, meningitis and sinus infections.

* Zoster vaccine. Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles. Shingles is most common in adults over age 50 and can create significant pain and nerve sensitivity. The Zoster vaccine is only needed once and can help even those who have had a shingles outbreak.

Before receiving any vaccine, it’s important to do your homework. Some individuals should not receive a vaccine. Examples are those with a suppressed immune system resulting from HIV/AIDS or ongoing cancer treatment.

Vaccine homework includes learning about and discussing each vaccine with a doctor or other health care professional. The Internet is full of good information about vaccines, but there is also a lot of misinformation. For the best information, use websites that provide non-biased, research-based data. Some of the best are government and university websites.

As with all health care decisions, be an informed consumer. Consider both the pros and cons and consider your own medical background before accepting or declining any treatment.

* Heather Greenwood is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Intergenerational and Aging Programs. Aging Matters covers topics of interest to the aging Maui community and appears on the third Sunday of each month.