The weather is turning, which means flu season is fast approaching – and it looks like the 2017-2018 flu season could turn out to be a doozy for seniors if what’s happening in Australia right now is any indication. More than two and a half times more flu cases have been reported in Australia this year than last, according to Australia’s Department of Health.
How does this affect the United States and other Northern Hemisphere countries? “In general, we get in our season what the Southern Hemisphere got in the season immediately preceding us,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.
The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from the flu is to get a flu vaccination.
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But when is the best time to get a vaccination? What’s a typical flu season? Why are some seasons worse than others?
We’ve got the answers to your top 11 flu questions:
The best way to protect against the flu, no matter your age or health status, is to get vaccinated.
Since the 1960s, the CDC has recommended annual flu shots for adults 65 and older. They’ve recommended the vaccine for adults 50 years and older since 2000.
Here are some guidelines on who should be vaccinated:
Americans age 65 and older do a pretty good job of vaccinating themselves and account for the highest vaccination rates among all age groups. For example, during the 2015-16 flu season, an estimated 66% of seniors were vaccinated, the CDC reports.
The CDC estimates the vaccine works on average 50-60% of the time and effectiveness in individuals varies based on their age and health and the types of flu viruses circulating that year.
Studies show flu vaccines tend to work best in children and healthy adults. As we age, our immune functions decrease, which can put us at higher risk for contracting the flu, even with a vaccine.
Even if the vaccine provides less protection in older adults than it might in younger people, the CDC warns some protection is better than no protection at all. There is also limited data that suggests the vaccination can reduce the severity of the flu.
Studies show flu vaccinations do cut down on hospitalizations in the elderly. A study published last year by the CDC showed that people 50 years and older who got vaccinated reduced their risk of hospitalization from the flu by 57%. That percentage held true for seniors over 75 as well.
Hospitalization for a frail elderly person can mark the beginning of a decline in health, the CDC warns. So avoiding the flu is a must.
It takes about two weeks after you get vaccinated for antibodies in your body to develop, protecting you from flu viruses. Doctors recommend getting your vaccinated before the end of October, when flu season starts to rev up.
Flu seasons change yearly. But a typical flu season starts around Halloween, peaks at the Super Bowl and is finished by Easter, according to Dr. Steven Lawrence, an infectious disease specialist, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
This season, the CDC recommends only injectables and not nasal spray flu vaccines. Some shots protect against three flu viruses while other protect against four.
There are several vaccines formulated with immune boosters that can prove beneficial to seniors 65 and older. More on these below.
The high-dose vaccine is 24.2% more effective in preventing flu in seniors than the standard dose, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. A separate study in the Lancet reports that these high-dose vaccines can reduce the number of hospital admissions for people over 65, especially those in long-term care facilities.
Anyone older than 65 should not get a vaccine that’s given into the skin and not the muscle.
You can get a flu vaccine at a doctor’s office, pharmacy or health center. Some workplaces and senior centers offer them as well.
Children, people with compromised immune systems and seniors age 65 and older are particularly at high risk for developing flu complications.
It’s not the flu itself that is particularly dangerous, it’s the complications that can stem from it, like pneumonia and bronchitis.
Each year, seniors account for the majority of flu hospitalizations and even deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, seniors make up between 54-70% of flu-related hospitalizations, and between 71-85% of flu-related deaths occur in people age 65 and older.
Flu vaccines are based on the 3-4 flu viruses expected to affect the United States in that year. Some years, the flu vaccine is a great match for the viruses, other years it doesn’t work as well.
Australia’s vaccine this year was almost identical to the U.S. vaccine, CNN reports, and it proved a great match for the viruses that circulated there. The problem was in a particular strain of virus, the “H3N2.” Vaccines famously don’t work well against this virus, which can be brutal on the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
But just because Australia had a rough flu season, it doesn’t necessarily bode poorly for the U.S., scientists caution.
“All the flu-ologists, myself included, say the only thing you can predict about influenza is that it’s going to be unpredictable,” Fauci told CNN.
What questions do you have about the flu season that weren’t covered in this article? We’d like to hear them in the comments below.