How Does the Flu Affect Older Adults?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 12, 2022

Older adults and people with chronic diseases are more likely to have problems from the flu. It often leads to a hospital stay, and sometimes it can be fatal. But this condition is easy to prevent, and the proper steps can keep you healthy during flu season.

How Do You Know You Have It?

Flu symptoms in older adults are pretty much the same as in other age groups. They may include:

Does the Flu Cause Stomach Problems?

It’s more common in children, but older adults sometimes have stomach symptoms -- like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea -- with this illness.

What Other Problems Come With It?

The flu can lead to:

Call your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms:

Can You Prevent the Flu?

Yes. The best way to prevent it is to get an annual flu vaccine.

Getting the shot is a smart idea. It makes a big difference in hospitalization and death rates among older adults who live at home and those in nursing homes.

A high-dose flu vaccine is made just for seniors. It has four times as much active ingredient as a regular flu shot to provide a better immune response in older people. It’s recommended for people ages 65 and older, if it's available.

Keep in mind that the seasonal flu viruses change each year, so older adults need to get a new flu shot each fall.

Also, there are two vaccines to prevent pneumonia. If you’re a healthy adult over age 65, the CDC suggests you get both vaccines. The timing and sequence will vary depending on what vaccine you’ve had before. 

Where Do You Get a Flu Shot?

The CDC offers an online flu shot clinic locator. Flu vaccinations are easier to find than ever. You can get them at walk-in clinics in many pharmacies and grocery stores. That's in addition to local health departments and many doctors' offices.

Can Older Adults Use the Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine?

FluMist is a nasal spray flu vaccine that contains a live flu virus. It isn’t recommended for adults over age 49. 

When’s the Best Time to Get the Shot?

Flu season can begin as early as September and last as late as May. Your best bet is to get a flu shot early in the season so your body has a chance to build up immunity to the virus. It takes about 2 weeks for the flu shot to protect you. Ideally, the best time to get the shot is in early September and no later than late October. If you don't get it early, getting a flu shot later still helps. Vaccination earlier may cause protection to weaken by end of the season.

How Is Flu Treated?

Contact your doctor if you get symptoms. He’ll check for complications and suggest treatment. He might prescribe an antiviral medication like oseltamivir (Tamiflu), peramivir (Rapivab), zanamivir (Relenza), or baloxavir (Xofluza).

Other ways to treat flu symptoms in older adults include:

  • Get lots of rest.
  • Drink plenty of liquids.
  • Ask the doctor or pharmacist before you take a new over-the-counter cold or flu medicine. He can make sure it won't interfere with prescription drugs or complicate your other medical conditions.

Show Sources


National Institute on Aging: "Flu -- Get the Shot."

American Lung Association: "Influenza Fact Sheet."

FDA: "Influenza: Vaccination Still the Best Protection."

Mayo Clinic: "Flu Shot: Your best shot for avoiding influenza."

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "NIAID Study Finds Higher Dose of Flu Vaccine Improves Immune Response in the Elderly."

Medline Plus: "Flu."

CDC web site: "Questions and Answers: Swine Flu and You;" "Key Facts about Swine Influenza (Swine Flu);" and "Interim Guidance for Swine influenza A (H1N1): Taking Care of a Sick Person in Your Home."

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