Flu Shot Pros and Cons for Seniors
Last Updated: November 14, 2019
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there on whether or not seniors should get flu shots. Learn about the major flu shot pros and cons and why seniors need to get vaccinated.
For many, the seasonal flu virus can become more than a temporary annoyance. While not a chronic condition, the flu virus can cause sniffles, body aches, and maybe a few days in bed. But for vulnerable groups, such as seniors, influenza can cause serious complications to his or her health. Chronic complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia may lead to hospitalization, long-term care and even the risk of death. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 90 percent of flu-related deaths and over 60 percent of hospitalizations are due to flu complications that occur in adults aged 65 and over.1
Why Seniors Are Advised To Get The Flu Shot
As people age, immune systems weaken, leaving the elderly more susceptible to infection and chronic illness. This is the primary reason why medical professionals highly encourage vulnerable individuals to get a flu shot at the beginning of every flu season. Although there is a possibility for side effects, the vaccine is generally considered a critical first line of defense against the risk of the potentially deadly symptoms of the virus. A yearly flu shot helps protect the immune system against changing influenza viruses. This is because each year, the vaccine is updated to reflect the most prevalent strains. Although the flu shot may not work as well in older adults, it still can lower the risk of illness. Additionally, seniors are eligible for an annual flu vaccine at no cost thanks to Medicare Part B coverage.
What Is the Senior Flu Shot?
According to the CDC, there are three types of flu vaccines given to the elderly – the high dose vaccine, the standard, and the adjuvanted vaccine. According to an AARP report, the high-dose vaccine helps the recipient produce more antibodies to fight off the virus. Understanding the difference can help you make a good decision when heading into the flu season with your senior loved one. Choosing the right type of shot is also choosing a better health outcome for the individual.
High-Dose Flu Vaccine
Four times stronger in influenza antigens than a typical vaccination, the high dose flu vaccine can encourage antibody production much more quickly. The rate of influenza symptoms seen in the 30,000 older adults tested with Fluzone High-Dose was 24% lower than those who were given the regular dose.
Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine
Called Fluad, this vaccine is formulated with a special adjuvant, which boosts the immune response. During a Canadian study of 282 seniors, it was proven to be 63% more effective than its non-adjuvanted regular dose counterpart.
Standard Flu Vaccine
Due to a decrease in immunity, the standard or trivalent flu shot is not as effective for older adults. Therefore, the standard flu shot is seldom given to the elderly but is still acceptable for other age groups.
The CDC explains that regardless of which version of flu shot the elderly patient gets, the vaccine isn’t a guaranteed cure. However, if an elderly patient does not get vaccinated, the symptoms of the flu may be life-threatening. Because the elderly have weaker immune systems, they may be more susceptible to flu virus symptoms that could be detrimental to their health. Their vulnerability may also be the result of pre-existing health issues – including neurological conditions, heart disease, or diabetes.
Medical professionals generally agree that it’s a good idea to minimize those risks by getting a flu shot every year.
When Is the Best Time for a Senior To Get a Flu Shot?
Although you may be tempted to have your elderly loved one vaccinated as soon as this year’s vaccines are released (which is typically late summer), a 2011-2012 Canadian study suggests that older adults should wait until just before the flu season in late September.2 If the individual is more prone to illness, getting the vaccination in September may give senior patients an advantage. This is because the average elderly individual’s immunity is higher later in the flu season. Getting a vaccine closer to September can help them to be protected through the end of flu season in April or May.
Still, it’s better to be vaccinated earlier rather than not at all. If your senior loved one can’t go back to get vaccinated in September, late summer months are still acceptable. Also, getting the vaccinations late in October and even November and December can still be beneficial as opposed to not getting it at all.
Where To Get a Senior Flu Shot?
Finding a location for your older adult loved one to receive a flu vaccine can be easier than you realize. Pharmacists, hospitals, health clinics, doctor’s offices, and local health departments can administer the shot. Elderly patients who frequently suffer from a respiratory illness or symptoms of angioedema should be under medical observation when receiving the shot. Medical observation is necessary in the case of a severe reaction or complications as a result of the shot. If possible, go with your loved one when he or she receives the vaccination. If the individual does not respond well to the shot, it is best if they have someone available to take care of them.
Are There Potential Downsides to the Flu Vaccine?
Side effects are possible following vaccination. The most common side effects are mild illness such as soreness at the injection site, body aches, a sore throat or low-grade fever. Individuals who are at a higher risk of adverse reactions, such as a fever, to vaccines are seniors who have previously had an allergic reaction to a vaccination, are already ill (the senior should wait until he or she is better), and who have a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) or other diseases. However, some of the most widespread arguments against getting vaccinated are based on misinformation. Here are a couple of flu myths that you might have heard about:
Myth 1: 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. As mentioned before, it is possible to get side effects that may feel a bit like the flu. However, the side effects are not the flu itself. Keep in mind that it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect in your body, so it is possible to get a flu infection before the shot has a chance to work. If you suspect an elderly person has symptoms of the flu, consult a medical professional.
Myth 2: 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. The flu shot is sometimes less effective in older adults, especially those already in poor health or suffering from a disease. 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 of the virus can spread through that community,” said the Centers for Disease Control. Given that the vaccine can be 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 the contagion.
Getting the flu vaccine is not a guarantee against coming down with the flu or fever, and other precautions should be taken. People who have flu symptoms or other illnesses should avoid contact with older adults as a safeguard against passing the virus. A study led by the University of Maryland indicates that the flu may be spread simply by breathing infectious aerosols.3 Seniors and those who spend time with or care for the elderly should engage in frequent hand washing and cover any coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue away.
If you’re wondering whether the flu season has begun in your community, Google’s Flu Map is one way to check. If your region is getting hit by the flu this year, it is in your and your community’s best interest to get vaccinated. Nonetheless, the CDC recommends that everyone gets 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.
1People 65 Years and Older & Influenza. (2019, October 29). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/highrisk/65over.htm.
2Should Seniors Wait to Receive the Flu Shot? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.pharmacytimes.com/resource-centers/flu/should-seniors-wait-to-receive-the-flu-shot.
3Flu may be spread just by breathing. (2018, January 18). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180118142611.htm.
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