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Senior Flu Shot: Why You Should Get One

Angelike Gaunt
By Angelike GauntSeptember 24, 2020

Each fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges Americans to get the influenza vaccine. If your loved one is 65 or older, it’s more important than ever to get a senior flu shot this year, as the U.S. continues to see the devastating effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Older adults are at high risk for life-threatening complications from the flu, including hospitalizations and death. The CDC estimates the flu causes 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 61,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. Up to 70% of flu-related hospitalizations and 85% of deaths associated with the flu occur in seniors age 65 and older. This is because seniors’ immune systems tend to be weaker when compared to those of younger adults.

Ensuring your senior loved one is protected against the flu can help prevent flu-related complications and hospitalizations, while reducing the burden on hospital workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

Learn about the different types of senior flu shots, their effectiveness, possible side effects, and why getting a senior flu shot is the best way to prevent it.

What is the senior flu shot?

The senior flu shot is a vaccine developed specifically for adults age 65 and older to protect them against the flu virus. Seniors need stronger protection because their immune system tends to weaken with age, putting older adults at increased risk of serious flu-related complications, such as pneumonia, other respiratory problems, hospitalizations, and death. The flu can also make chronic conditions common in seniors — like diabetes, asthma, and COPD — worse.

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The senior flu shot creates a stronger immune response that helps older adults’ immune systems fight the flu virus more effectively than the regular flu shot. The vaccine works by stimulating the production of antibodies that protect seniors against the virus.

While older adults may get any flu vaccine approved for their age group, two flu vaccines were developed specifically for seniors: the high-dose flu vaccine and the adjuvanted flu vaccine.

Senior flu shot types

The following flu vaccines are recommended for adults 65 and older only. Talk to your doctor about which senior flu shot is right for your loved one.

  • Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent (brand name: Fluzone High-Dose) is a vaccine made up of four different flu strains that are likely to cause the flu in the upcoming season. The higher dose of flu virus antigen in the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine stimulates a strong immune response that makes it more effective in preventing the flu in seniors than other regular flu vaccines. One study comparing it to the standard flu vaccine also showed the higher-dose vaccine reduced the need for flu-related hospitalizations.
  • Adjuvanted flu vaccine (brand name: Fluad) contains an additive that stimulates a stronger immune response when compared to other standard flu vaccines. This vaccine is usually made up of three different strains of the flu like other standard flu vaccines, but a quadrivalent adjuvanted vaccine made up of four different strains of the flu is also available in 2020.

How effective is the flu shot for seniors?

The flu vaccine is not 100% effective, but it’s still the best way to prevent the flu, according to the CDC. The regular flu vaccine seems to be less effective in seniors than it is in younger adults. However, studies have found the high-dose senior flu shot better protects older adults against the flu when compared with the standard flu vaccine.

Getting vaccinated also seems to reduce the severity of illness for people who get sick with the flu. In fact, researchers have found that flu vaccination in recent years has reduced the need for hospitalizations among older adults by 40%.

Senior flu shot side effects

The senior flu shot is considered safe, but it may cause mild side effects. During the week after getting the vaccine, seniors may experience:

  • Soreness, tenderness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
  • Headache or muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

Check with the doctor before getting a senior flu shot if your loved one has:

  • An egg allergy
  • A mercury allergy
  • A serious auto-immune disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • A fever

If your aging relative has had a bad reaction to the flu shot before, you should also talk to the doctor before they get vaccinated.

Where can seniors get a flu shot?

Several locations offer senior flu shots, including doctor’s offices, local health departments, and pharmacies.

You may be worried about taking your senior relative to get a flu shot this year if COVID-19 is still spreading in your community. However, the CDC says it’s especially important for seniors and others who are at increased risk for flu complications to get vaccinated.

There are certain steps your loved one can take to stay safe when going to get the flu shot:

  • Call ahead and ask the doctor or pharmacist if they’re following the CDC’s pandemic guidance.
  • Wear a mask to the vaccine appointment.
  • If your loved one has a fever, it’s best to get vaccinated at a later time when they’re not sick.
  • Wash hands frequently using soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

View CDC guidelines for more information on protecting yourself and senior relatives from COVID-19.

When is the best time to get a flu shot?

It’s best to get vaccinated before the flu begins to spread in your community. It takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop after getting the flu shot.

However, getting vaccinated too early, like in the summer, may reduce protection against the flu virus. This is why the CDC recommends getting the flu shot early in the fall before the flu season begins. Plan to take your aging loved one to get a senior flu shot by the end of October.

Helpful flu prevention tips for seniors

Although getting a senior flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu, you can also encourage your aging loved one to take these steps to stay healthy:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
  • Pay attention to symptoms, such as a fever, chills, sore throat, body aches, and cough. Talk to your doctor if symptoms develop.
  • Practice healthy habits to support immune health and prevent disease. Eat a balanced diet, stay physically active, manage stress, and get plenty of rest.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Frequently asked influenza (flu) questions: 2020-2021 season.” 
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Flu and people 65 years and older.” https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pdf/freeresources/seniors/seniors-vaccination-factsheet-final.pdf.

Hibberd PL. “Seasonal influenza vaccination in adults.” 
https://www.uptodate.com/contents/seasonal-influenza-vaccination-in-adults.

Angelike Gaunt
Author
Angelike Gaunt

Angelike Gaunt is a content strategist at A Place for Mom. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.

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