If you can’t remember the last time you went to the doctor, it’s probably been too long.
Same for the dentist.
Chances are you know it’s that time of year to get your flu shot, what with all the drugstore reminders, but are you up to date with other vaccinations that can help ward off disease, maybe even cancer?
This is a good time to take stock.
“It’s worth spending a little time planning a roadmap of how to remain healthy through the winter months,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein.
There are lots of tools to do so. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Burstein, and other Western New York health professionals laid out the following checklist:
Tests and screenings
The basics: Blood pressure should be checked at least annually, including for children, who may have hereditary disposition toward high blood pressure, Burstein said. Diabetes and cholesterol testing also should be standard for adults, and some children, during an annual physical exam. Make sure you schedule one soon if you haven’t already this year.
Cancer detection: Mammograms for women and colon cancer screenings for men and women should start at age 50 for those who are healthy, and may start at a lower age for those with digestive tract issues or a family history of breast or colon cancer. Cervical testing should start at 21 and continue annually until 30, the health commissioner said. Such Pap smear tests can be conducted less often after that, depending on earlier results.
STDs: Burstein recommended that sexually active females under the age of 25 get tested annually for chlamydia and gonorrhea – two sexually transmitted diseases that normally don’t have symptoms in males or females – and that men who have sex with men get tested for syphilis and HIV at least every year. “Chlamydia is the number one cause of preventable infertility in women,” Burstein said, and STDs can cause problems during pregnancy and raise the risk of contracting HIV. All sexually active males and females should have at least one HIV test during young adulthood, and talk to their health care provider about risk factors and how often other tests should follow.
It’s also a great idea for anyone entering into their first serious sexual relationship to get STD testing – and insist their partner does, too. “If they have an infection that’s treatable, they can get treated, and if they have an infection that is not curable, like herpes, at least they can discuss with their partner how they want to protect themselves,” Burstein said.
“Your immunization history is almost as important as your medication history,” said Klara Manning, a pharmacist with Lifetime Health in Amherst. “Knowing what you had and when you had it should be something you carry in your wallet, just as you should carry a list of your medications. There are phone apps for people who are tech savvy.”
Influenza: Deaths associated with the flu have ranged from about 3,300 to 49,000 during each of the past 31 flu seasons. The vaccines can’t give a person the flu because the virus is killed before it’s included in the shot. Flu season tends to start in December and run through May. Everyone over 6 months old should get a flu shot every year.
Pneumonia: Pneumovax prevents 23 strains of pneumonia and is recommended for those 65 and older, as well as all smokers and those with COPD and other lung diseases. Prevnar prevents 13 pneumonia strains and is recommended as a booster shot for those age 65 and over. Seniors should get both, Manning said.
Measles: The Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, as well as the polio vaccine, are given to children. These diseases largely have been eradicated in the U.S. as a result.
Meningitis: Middle-school children are required to get immunizations that prevent this potentially fatal disease; outbreaks of a different strain of meningitis on college campuses in have led the CDC to recommended a meningitis B vaccine for those age 18 to 25.
Tdap: A combination vaccine for Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis. We need booster shots of these every 10 years during adulthood. Women should get this vaccine during every pregnancy to protect the baby.
Shingles: Almost all adults have traces of the virus that causes chicken pox milling about in their bodies. For one in three adults, the virus resurfaces at some point in the form of painful shingles. Some of the nerve pain associated with an outbreak can become lasting, Manning said. That’s why a live shingles vaccine, Zostavax, is recommended for those over 60 in good health, and for some people over 50 with chronic health concerns.
HPV: The human papillomavirus is the leading cause of throat cancer and also causes cervical cancer and other genital cancers. “We always hear people say, ‘I wish they had a vaccine to prevent cancer,’ ” Burstein said. “Now we do.” Despite the benefits of the three-shot Gardasil 9 HPV series, inoculation rates in Erie County fall below state and national averages. “In the United States, we’re so much more likely to get exposed and infected with HPV than we are with measles or mumps or rubella or tetanus,” she said.
Stop smoking: Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death for Americans. It causes nine of every 10 lung cancer deaths and kills more women each year than breast cancer, according to the CDC. If you smoke, quit. It can be hard – but it’s possible. There are now more former smokers in the U.S. than current smokers, according to the American Lung Association. The New York State Quitline – based at Roswell Park Cancer Institute – can help you quit too, for free. Call (866) NY-QUITS or visit nysmokefree.com. Roswell Park also offers free five-week tobacco-cessation classes that meet weekly. The next one starts at 6 p.m. Oct. 10; those interested must register by calling 845-8667. As for e-cigarettes: “For tobacco smokers, it may be harm reduction,” Burstein said, “but for young people who don’t smoke a lot or who never smoked, it can be a gateway to smoking behavior.”
Eat healthier and lose weight: Roughly two thirds of American adults are considered overweight or obese. Focus on a diet that tilts heavily to fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates. Avoid sugars and processed foods. Exercise for at least 150 minutes each week. Those who do are more likely avoid weight-related illnesses that include hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
Identify depression: When daylight fades earlier, holidays without loved ones approach and it’s harder to exercise outdoors, it also can impact mental well-being, said Michael Ranney, Erie County mental health commissioner. Depression can strike any time of year. In some cases, it can take hold in debilitating fashion, like other illnesses. “It’s fairly normal to be sad,” Ranney said, “but if it lasts more than three weeks, then you should consider seeking help.” Symptoms can include persistent sadness, anxiousness or emptiness, hopelessness, helplessness or guilt; decreased energy; difficulty concentrating or sleeping; sleeping too much; a change in appetite; persistent physical symptoms; thoughts of suicide. Those with concerns for themselves or a loved one are encouraged to call 211 in Erie or Niagara counties, the 24-hour Erie County Crisis Services hotline at 834-3131 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
Reduce alcohol use: Men in generally good health risk their health when they consume more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks a week, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. For women, it’s more than three drinks on any day or seven per week. Those concerned about alcohol or other substance abuse challenges also can call 211.
Healthy adults should see a primary care doctor at least once a year for a well visit. Burstein also advised that children and adults visit the dentist twice each year for oral exams and teeth cleanings.
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