There are a few different options for seniors who want to get a flu vaccine, and lots of important information you should know before getting that flu shot.
At this time of year, we get lots of questions from caregivers and seniors wondering about the flu vaccine. Some of the most common queries are whether it is safe for the elderly, what the various options are for getting immunized, and what the best time is to get immunized. We’ve put together a guide to the flu shot that addresses some of your most pressing questions about vaccine ingredients, possible adverse reactions, the cost of the vaccine, and more. But the most important point the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are stressing, above all others, is to get that flu vaccine.
“Last flu season was particularly hard on seniors, causing more hospitalizations and deaths than in previous seasons,” says Dr. Lisa Grohskopf, medical officer in CDC’s Influenza Division.
“At this point, flu activity is starting to increase across the country. Everyone 65 years and older and anyone who cares for them should get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.”
All About the Flu Vaccine and Its Ingredients
The ingredients of the flu vaccine sometimes spark concern – many people wonder whether the inactivated flu viruses can actually cause the flu, or whether shots contain egg, which could be a problem for those with an egg allergy. The truth is, whether a flu vaccine contains inactivated viruses, like the flu shot, or weakened viruses, like the nasal spray vaccine, you can’t develop an influenza infection from either one. There may be minor side effects, and you can still get the flu in the time it takes for the vaccine to take effect in your body (about two weeks). But the vaccine itself will not give you the flu. Here are the key facts about the ingredients of the vaccine:
- The effective ingredient in the flu vaccine is the inactive or weakened flu viruses or antigens, which prompt the immune system to create antibodies.
- Some of the antigens are grown in eggs, and others using animal cells or other methods, so people allergic to egg should inform their provider before vaccination. Flu vaccines not grown in eggs are safe for those with egg allergies. However, at this time the egg-free vaccine is only available for those aged 18-49.
- Vaccines also usually contain some form of preservative.
- You can find a full list of ingredients at the CDC’s website.
Possible Flu Vaccine Reactions: Should You Worry?
With very rare exceptions, says the CDC, possible reactions to the flu vaccine are mild and short-term, though on occasion someone has a severe allergic reaction. Some reported reactions include the following:
- Pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site (for shots)
- Fever, aches, or malaise
- Runny nose, headache, sore throat, or cough (for nasal spray)
- Very rarely, symptoms of Guillain–Barré Syndrome (GBS) have been reported, but there is no clear link, and it occurs in just one or two cases per million people
Because of compromised health, there are certain groups of people who should not get the flu vaccine, or who should consult with a doctor before doing so. Those include:
- People who have had a severe allergic reaction to past flu vaccinations, or to eggs
- People who are moderately to severely ill
- People with a history of Guillain–Barré Syndrome (GBS)
- People with immunodeficiency diseases
- People with medical conditions that place them at higher risk for complications from flu, including asthma or diabetes
The Dangers of Not Getting the Flu Vaccine
Though there are a few risks associated with the flu vaccine in vulnerable persons, the far greater dangers lie in not getting immunized. Seniors are more susceptible to flu infection because their immunity is lower. Because the flu is easily spread by coughing or sneezing, it can spread quickly in a closed environment like a nursing facility.
Seniors are also at higher risk of developing complications from influenza, such as pneumonia, and they’re more likely to be hospitalized or even die from the flu. According to CDC estimates, 90% of flu-related deaths and over 60% of flu hospitalizations occur in adults over 65. While the effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies, depending in part on how well it “matches” that season’s common flu strains, recent studies show it can reduce the risk of illness by up to 60%.
Types of Flu Vaccine Available to Seniors
There are a few different options when it comes to the types of flu vaccine available to seniors over 65:
- This year, you can get a trivalent vaccine that protects against three different strains, or a quadrivalent vaccine that also protects against an additional form of Influenza B.
- Because vaccines can be less effective in older adults, there is also a new high-dose vaccine available with four times the amount of antigens, designed to create a stronger immune response.
- There is an intradermal shot that uses a much smaller micro-needle to inject the vaccine just under the skin, recommended for those aged 18 through 64.
- There is an egg-free vaccine approved for those aged 18 through 49, but its safety in those 50 and over is still not known.
- The nasal spray vaccine is approved for use in those aged 2 through 49.
- Medicare Part B covers 100% of the cost of the seasonal flu shot for seniors.
“Older adults who are not sure what is the best option for them should talk with their doctor or nurse,” says the CDC’s Dr. Lisa Grohskopf. “CDC does not recommend any of the flu vaccine options over the other. The important thing is to get one.”
Have you and your loved ones gotten a flu shot this season? If not, why not? Let us know in the comments.
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