What to Know About Flu Vaccines for Seniors

‌Some older adults may have weaker immune systems, which can put them at a higher risk of developing severe complications from flu. The risk is related to changes in immune defenses that happen as we age.

While flu seasons may vary in severity, people 65 years and better bear the greatest burden of severe flu disease. It’s estimated that between 70 and 85% of seasonal flu-related deaths occur in seniors. Similarly, between 50 and 70% of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur in this age group.

Luckily, with advancements in medicine, seniors now have access to a high-dose vaccine that can help protect them from the flu each season.

Types of Flu Vaccines

Flu vaccines are updated to keep up with the changing viruses every season. Also, immunity can decrease over time. For these reasons, it's important to get an annual flu vaccine to ensure you get the best possible protection against the flu.

While the traditional flu vaccine is helpful, research has shown that it may not be as effective in seniors as previously believed. Luckily, there are a few different options to choose from that work well for this age group.

People 65 years and older will benefit from getting a flu shot, but they should never get a nasal spray vaccine. There are two vaccines designed specifically for this group:

High Dose Flu Vaccine. One new vaccine is called Fluzone High-Dose. The new vaccine has four times as much antigen as regular flu vaccines. Antigen is the material that controls how your body recognizes and defends itself against viruses. In tests, it proved to be about 24% more effective than other vaccines for seniors.

Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine. Also known as Fluad, this flu vaccine is made with an additive that creates a stronger immune response. In medical trials, seniors who took Fluad had significantly better immune responses than those who received the traditional flu shot.

Symptoms of the Flu

When you're sick with the flu, you may experience one or a combination of symptoms like fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. Some people may also experience vomiting and diarrhea. People infected with the flu may have respiratory symptoms without a fever.

People experiencing these emergency warning signs of the flu should seek medical care right away:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Seizures
  • Fever or cough that comes and goes
  • Worsening of a medical condition

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Treatment for the Flu

When considering treatment for the flu, it’s helpful to keep these considerations in mind:

  • Treating the flu should begin as soon as possible because antiviral drugs work best when started early or within 48 hours after symptoms start.
  • For you to get an antiviral drug, a health care provider needs to write a prescription. These medicines fight against flu by keeping flu viruses from creating more viruses in your body.
  • Antiviral drugs can make your flu milder and help make you feel better faster. They may also prevent severe health problems that can result from having the flu.

Side Effects of Flu Vaccine for Seniors

Seniors who receive a high-dose flu shot are more likely to develop side effects the week after receiving the vaccine. These could include pain, headache, muscle ache, tiredness, and redness or swelling at the injection site. These symptoms typically resolve within 1 to 3 days.

Tips for the Flu Vaccine for Seniors

Doctors recommend that seniors 65 years or older should also get regular pneumococcal vaccination, which can help protect against diseases like pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections:

Pneumococcal pneumonia is a serious flu-related complication that can cause death. You can ask your doctor about the pneumococcal vaccine when you get a flu vaccine.

You can also protect yourself from the flu by:

  • Washing your hands often.
  • Using alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
  • Covering your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and throwing the tissue into the trash after you use it. You can also cough into your elbow, not your hands.
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs are spread that way.
  • Avoiding close contact with sick people.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 16, 2021

Sources

SOURCES: 

‌CDC: "Flu & People 65 Years and Older."

Kaiser Permanente: "High-dose vaccine may protect seniors better."

Mayo Clinic: "Fluzone High-Dose: What distinguishes it from other flu vaccines?"

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