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The flu shot can go a long way toward keeping you healthy and safe this fall and winter, especially if you’re 65 or older.
Getting your influenza immunization is important for your well-being and it could even save your life. Here’s why you should give the vaccine a shot and how to do it.
Why the Flu Threat Looms Large for Older Adults
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses that flu remains a serious health issue for America’s seniors.
As you age, your immune defenses decrease. This may leave you more vulnerable to getting sick from influenza viruses, which begin circulating more widely in the fall and winter.
Most years, people ages 65 and older bear the largest burden from the flu. Experts estimate that in recent years, between 70% and 85% of people who died from the flu were age 65 or older. And about 50% to 75% of flu-related hospitalizations also occurred in this age group.
Typical flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat and headache. The flu can also worsen any other health problems you might have, such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease. Even if your conditions are under control now, getting the flu can cause flare-ups or progression of these illnesses.
The Importance of Flu Shots for Seniors
Studies show flu shots decrease the odds of clinic visits and hospitalizations among everyone, including older adults. It might even prevent you from dying of the flu. Even if you do wind up catching the flu, if you’re vaccinated, your illness will likely be less severe.
Flu Shots: Effective and Safe
Because you take vaccines before you get sick, it’s normal to worry about what side effects they might have. First off, you can’t get the flu from the flu shot, the CDC emphasizes — it’s made either with an inactivated virus or a single protein from it.
Some people do develop side effects after getting a flu shot. The spot where you get the shot may be sore, red, tender or swollen. Your head or muscles may ache, and you might feel nauseous or tired. These side effects are usually mild and go away quickly.
Of course, these aren’t pleasant — but when compared to the serious and potentially life-threatening consequences of getting the flu, the benefits far outweigh the downsides.
The Best Flu Shots for Older Adults
The changes in your immune system mean it might be more difficult for a vaccine to provoke an immune response — in other words, to prompt your body to produce enough virus-fighting antibodies.
For that reason, scientists recommend older adults get injections, rather than receive the flu nasal spray. And they’ve designed two types of flu shots specifically for older adults. These are:
- Adjuvanted flu vaccine. Like many flu vaccines, these shots are made using a process that involves chicken eggs. However, adjuvanted vaccines also contain a special ingredient called MF59, which turbocharges your immune reaction.
- High-dose flu vaccine. This shot contains a quadruple dose of flu antigen, the part that revs up your body’s defenses. Because of that, it’s likely to provoke a stronger immune response in older adults, studies suggest. However, it’s not recommended for people who have had allergic reactions to flu shots in the past.
Both shots might result in a few more side effects than the normal, lower-dose versions. However, most people who get these shots feel fine afterward. Talk with your doctor about the best flu shot for you.
The CDC recommends getting the shot in September or October, but flu season can stretch into April — so it’s never too late to shore up your protection.
Also talk with your doctor about getting a pneumococcal vaccine, if you aren’t already up to date. This vaccine protects you against pneumonia, meningitis and bloodstream infections — potentially serious complications of the flu that are also more common among older adults.
Other Important Precautions to Take This Flu Season
While the flu shot stands as the best way to avoid getting sick with influenza, there’s a lot more you can do to stay healthy this flu season.
These measures include the following:
- Avoid people who are sick.
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze — and cover your mouth and nose with a mask or cloth face covering in public.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Try to maintain 6 feet of physical distance between you and others who aren’t in your household.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, making sure to lather for a full 20 seconds. If soap and water aren’t available, you can use sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
It’s also important to take care of your overall health and manage any other medical conditions. Continue to follow your doctor’s advice and treatment plan for illnesses like heart disease, diabetes or asthma. Have at least a 30-day supply of medications, and don’t stop taking them without talking to your doctor.
Don’t delay getting other medical care. Your doctor can also advise on the best way to keep tabs on your health. In some cases, virtual doctor visits can replace in-person ones.
What to Do if You Get Sick
Signs of the flu should prompt you to seek medical advice right away. Call your doctor if you develop:
- Congestion or a runny nose
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Head, muscle or body aches
- Sore throat
- Trouble breathing or catching your breath
The sooner you start treatment, the better.
In the case of influenza, prescription antiviral medications keep flu viruses from reproducing in your body. This helps you feel better, faster, as well as prevents serious complications — and may even save your life. Antivirals work best when you start taking them within 48 hours of developing symptoms.
Some signs are even more urgent. Get emergency medical help immediately for severe symptoms, including:
- Confusion or dizziness that doesn’t improve
- Cough or fever that gets better, then comes back
- Not urinating
- Pain in your chest or abdomen that doesn’t go away
- Severe muscle pain, unsteadiness or weakness
- Worsening of other medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart failure
Of course, these aren’t the only signs of serious health problems. Call your doctor any time you have new symptoms that concern you.
We’re Here for to Care for Your Whole Health
The best medicine for flu is prevention — so ask your primary care physician about a flu shot for the 2023-2024 season. To learn more about how to stay well all year, read more of our blogs here.