The process of developing a COVID-19 vaccine continues at a fast pace. Meanwhile, there’s another immunization that can go a long way toward keeping you healthy and safe this fall and winter, especially if you’re age 65 or older.
It’s the flu shot, and while it won’t protect you from novel coronavirus, it could still save your life. And it’s more important than ever to get one in the middle of a pandemic. Here’s why you should give it a shot by the end of October — and how to do it.
Why the Flu Threat Looms Large for Older Adults
After months of taking precautions against COVID-19, influenza may have fallen off your radar. But the 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 half to three-fourths of flu-related hospitalizations also occurred in this age group.
Of course, that’s on top of the risk older adults face from COVID-19. In fact, eight out of 10 U.S. deaths reported from novel coronavirus have been among those ages 65 and older, the CDC notes.
Some signs and symptoms of the two conditions overlap — for instance, fever, cough, sore throat and headache could mean either flu or COVID-19. It’s also possible to have both diseases at the same time — a recipe for disaster.
What’s more, flu can also worsen any other health problems you might have, such as diabetes, asthma and 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
Why does getting a flu shot matter so much if it doesn’t protect you from novel coronavirus? After all, COVID-19 does seem to be more deadly than the flu.
But chances are, the hospital isn’t the place you most want to visit during a pandemic, unless you’re getting vital treatment — and a flu shot can help you steer clear.
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 of these 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 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. Fortunately, many of the same steps that protect you from the flu also reduce your risk of getting COVID-19.
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 because of the pandemic. Your doctor can also advise on the best way to keep tabs on your health. In some cases, telehealth or virtual doctor visits can replace in-person ones.
What to Do if You Get Sick
Symptoms of flu and COVID-19 can be similar or overlapping. Signs of either illness 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
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
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.
Here for Your Health
The best medicine for flu is prevention — so ask your primary care physician about a flu shot for the 2020‒2021 season. Don’t have a primary care doctor? Look for one in our directory.