Getting vaccinated is your best defense.
The idea of getting a flu shot may conjure images of kiddie Band-Aids and school health forms, but immunization is just as important for older folks as it is for younger people. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over the age of six months get an annual flu shot, the vaccination is especially important for older adults. That’s because this group is at high risk for serious flu-related complications like pneumonia.
Problem is, many older adults aren’t convinced they need a flu shot. “The most common misconception is that it doesn’t work,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., board-certified infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “While it’s true that the flu vaccination [isn’t one of the most effective] vaccines, it is the chief means of preventing the flu.”
“The benefits of the flu shot are overwhelming,” says immunologist and epidemiologist Aaron Glatt, M.D., chairman of the department of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital. “It may help you be less contagious and less sick, if not preventing the flu altogether.”
Getting the flu shot is especially crucial this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Adalja says. “Not only can it help lower your risk of contracting influenza, it can lessen the burden on the healthcare system, which is already dealing with COVID-19,” he says.
Plus, it is possible to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time and the symptoms can feel very similar. “You do not want that,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.
So, ready to get vaccinated? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the flu shot, especially if you’re on the other side of 50.
Getting a flu shot could save your life.
Contracting the flu can be dangerous as you age. According to the CDC, people aged 65 and older make up about 70 to 90% of seasonal flu-related deaths and between 50 and 70% of flu-related hospitalizations. It’s also worth noting that the risk of having severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age. People in their 50s are at a higher risk than those in the 40s, and people in their 60s and 70s are at a higher risk for severe illness than those in their 50s, the CDC says.
The reason: Your immune system weakens as you get older, lowering your ability to fight off viruses and bounce back after illness.
On top of that, older individuals may suffer from conditions such as diabetes, COPD, and cancer, which lower their immunity and put them at an increased risk for the flu, according to a September 2018 report from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
You have a few flu vaccination options.
While the CDC maintains that the standard flu vaccine can benefit all age groups, there are specific formulations that are targeted to older folks to increase their protection from influenza. If you’re 65 or older, you have two options: the high-dose flu vaccine and the adjuvanted flu vaccine.
The high-dose flu vaccine is aptly named—it has four times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot, which leads to higher antibody production and lower chances of contracting the flu. (An antigen is a substance that stimulates the immune system to produce protective antibodies.) According to the CDC, adults 65 and older who received the vaccine had 24% fewer influenza infections compared to those who got the standard vaccine.
The adjuvanted vaccine is the same as the standard flu vaccine, but it has an additive called MF59, which helps promote a stronger immune response to the flu, according to the CDC. In other words, it helps the body do a better job of fending off influenza viruses.
“There’s no head-to-head data comparing the adjuvanted vs. high-dose formulations (though the high-dose version has been around a little longer) so older adults can really choose one or the other depending on local availability,” notes Dr. Adalja.
The vaccine you choose may have additional side effects.
The high-dose and adjuvanted flu vaccines may have more side effects than the standard flu vaccine, according to the CDC. These may include soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site, headache, muscle ache, and a reduced interest in normal activities. Dr. Glatt most commonly hears patients complain of soreness, which can last for a few days. It’s important to note, he says, that the flu vaccine does not cause the flu—if you happen to fall ill after vaccination, it’s likely because you were already incubating the illness.
The flu vaccine will not protect you from contracting COVID-19.
While health officials repeatedly stress the importance of getting your flu vaccine, especially this year, it won’t prevent you from getting COVID-19. But it can lower your risk of contracting the flu, having a serious case of the flu if you do happen to get it, or getting a severe case of the flu alongside COVID-19.
There’s more you can do to avoid getting sick.
Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent the flu, but there are other steps you can take including: getting proper rest, washing your hands frequently, not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, and encouraging your loved ones to get vaccinated, too.
Practicing known methods of preventing the spread of COVID-19, like maintaining social distancing and wearing a face mask in public, can also go a long way toward keeping you protected—from COVID-19 and the flu, Dr. Adalja says.