There’s a lot of conflicting information out there on whether or not seniors should get flu shots. Read for yourself the major flu shot pros and cons and learn why it’s important for seniors to get vaccinated.
For many of us, the seasonal flu is little more than a temporary annoyance, causing sniffles and aches and, maybe, a few days in bed. But for vulnerable groups—including seniors—influenza can cause serious complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia, leading to hospitalization and even death. Indeed, the CDC estimates that 90 percent of flu-related deaths and over 60 percent of flu hospitalizations occur in adults aged 65 and older. As we age, our immune systems weaken, leaving us more susceptible to infection. This is the chief reason why medical professionals urge everyone, especially vulnerable individuals like the elderly, to get a flu shot every year. Though there is a possibility for side effects, the vaccine is generally considered a critical first line of defense against a potentially deadly virus. And there’s even more good news: seniors can get their annual flu shot at no cost thanks to Medicare Part B coverage.
Why Seniors Are Advised to Get the Flu Shot
A yearly flu shot helps protect the immune system against changing influenza viruses: each year the vaccine is updated to reflect the most prevalent strains. Although it’s true that the flu shot may not work as well in older adults, it still does lower the risk of flu, and there is a higher-dose version available for seniors who want extra protection. Evidence suggests the high-dose vaccine helps the recipient produce more antibodies, according to an AARP report.
Also, new this year is the option to get a quadrivalent vaccine that protects against four different flu strains, compared to the standard trivalent version, which protects against three. As the CDC explains, regardless of which version you get, the vaccine isn’t foolproof. But the risks to older people of getting the flu can be life-threatening. Besides a weaker immune system that may be more vulnerable to flu viruses, older adults may have other health issues—including neurological conditions, heart disease, or diabetes—that make them susceptible to flu-related complications. Medical professionals generally agree that it’s a good idea to minimize those risks by getting a flu shot every year.
Potential Downsides to the Flu Vaccine
Yes, there are possible downsides to getting a flu shot. Side effects are possible, though the most common ones are mild, such as soreness at the injection site, aches, or low-grade fever. Also, certain people are at higher risk of adverse reactions to vaccines: those who have had an allergic reaction to vaccination, those who are already ill (they should wait until they are better), and those with a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). However, some of the most widespread arguments against getting the flu vaccine are based on misinformation. Here are a few flu myths that you might have heard about:
- You might get the flu from the flu vaccine. This is false, because the viruses contained in the flu shot are inactivated and not infectious. It is possible to get side effects like those discussed above that may feel a bit like the flu. Also, bear in mind that it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect in your body, so it is possible to actually get a flu infection before the shot has a chance to work.
- The flu shot doesn’t really work very well. As discussed above, it’s still possible to get the flu after you get the flu shot, and it’s sometimes less effective in older adults. Still, it does help, even though flu viruses are constantly mutating. “Antibodies made in response to the vaccine can provide some protection (called cross-protection) against different but related influenza viruses,” says the CDC.
More Flu Shot Information You Should Know
The flu shot isn’t only important to individual protection. It also reduces the chances of spreading flu throughout the population at large. “When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread through that community,” says the CDC. This is especially important for caregivers to know. Given that the vaccine is less effective in seniors, an additional layer of protection is possible if caregivers and loved ones also get vaccinated, thus reducing the risk of spreading contagion.
If you’re wondering whether the flu is active in your community, Google’s Flu Map is one way to check: it uses common flu-related search terms as indicators of flu activity in various regions. Whether your region is getting hit by the flu might be a helpful deciding factor in getting a shot this year—though, again, the CDC’s recommendation is for everyone to get a flu shot even if you’re not in a hard-hit area. HealthMap’s Vaccine Finder is a great way to find a place offering flu shots near you.
Are you planning to get a flu shot this year? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.