Seasonal influenza affects millions of Americans every year and causes hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations. Older adults are especially likely to get seriously ill from the flu and develop dangerous complications. But the flu shot is a simple and effective solution that can keep seniors healthy throughout the season.
Why Do Seniors Need Flu Shots?
They Have Weaker Immune Systems
Older adults (ages 65 and older) are one of the most at-risk groups for contracting flu viruses largely due to their weaker immune systems. Pair a weakened immune system with a chronic illness such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes and the risk of catching a flu bug is even greater.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu shot effectiveness has been similar in most flu seasons among older adults and those with chronic health conditions compared to younger, healthier people. A flu shot can reduce the risk that a senior will get sick and lessens their chance of passing the illness on to their spouse, caregiver or other at-risk groups.
Vaccines Reduce Flu Severity
Flu vaccine effectiveness can vary from season to season, but even though the flu shot isn’t 100 percent effective each year, it is still worth getting as it can also reduce the severity of the flu in seniors. Contracting a milder case of the flu is more bearable for seniors who are often prone to developing flu complications. A 2018 study showed that among adults hospitalized with the flu, those who received the flu shot were 59 percent less likely to be admitted to the ICU than those who didn’t get a flu shot.
Seniors Can Develop Deadly Flu Complications
People who are 65 and older are more susceptible to developing serious flu complications. Pneumonia is a common concern among seniors who contract the flu and can be deadly to those with weakened immune systems and chronic health conditions.
According to the CDC, seniors account for the majority of both flu hospitalizations and flu-related deaths each year. But flu vaccines are associated with lower rates of some cardiac events among adults with heart disease and reduced hospitalizations among people with lung disease and diabetes. Getting the flu shot can prevent seniors from developing pneumonia and other flu-related complications.
Types of Flu Shots for Seniors
Flu shots are not one-size-fits-all. While some seniors can benefit from the regular seasonal flu shot, there are other flu vaccines designed specifically for seniors who are 65 or older:
- High Dose Flu Shot: This vaccine has been available in the United States since 2009 and contains four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot to offer a stronger immune response.
- Flu Vaccine with Adjuvant: This flu shot is quite new to the United States and was first made available here in 2016. It is made with an additive that creates a stronger immune response to vaccination.
- Pneumococcal Vaccines: Seniors should also be up to date with pneumococcal shots to protect against flu complications such as pneumonia, meningitis and blood infections.
When Should Seniors Get the Flu Shot?
Flu activity begins as early as October each year. It often takes two weeks for flu antibodies to develop after receiving the vaccine. This is why the CDC recommends that adults over age 65 try to get their flu shots by the end of October. However, getting the flu shot at any time during flu season is better than passing on getting one altogether.
Where to Get Free or Reduced Fee Flu Shots
Flu shots are often free for seniors who are covered by health insurance or Medicare. As long as a provider is in-network or accepts Medicare, most seniors can acquire a free flu shot. Elderly adults without insurance can also find low-cost flu shots at most walk-in clinics or drugstores.
Flu Prevention Tips for the Elderly
Flu shots are just one part of preventing the flu. In addition to getting seasonal flu shots, seniors should take the following actions to help prevent the flu and keep the illness from spreading to others.
- Avoid coming into contact with people who are sick
- Avoid coughing into hands
- Cover coughs with a tissue, or cough into your arm if a tissue isn’t available
- Wash hands frequently (scrubbing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds) especially before eating and after coming into contact with someone who has the flu
- Use hand sanitizer while out in public or shopping
- Keep fresh fruits and vegetables on hand for quick, immune-boosting snacks
- Get plenty of sleep each night
- Enlist the help of a home health aide to ensure you or your loved one eats healthy food, stays on a routine sleep schedule and takes their medications on time
Flu Symptoms & Emergency Complications
If you or your senior loved one develops any of the following flu symptoms, it’s important to seek medical care as soon as possible. A medical professional can often prescribe antiviral medications to help with symptoms and decrease the length of illness.
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Vomiting or diarrhea (more common in children than adults)
While many people recover from the flu in less than two weeks, seniors may develop severe complications. Seek emergency medical care if you or your elderly loved one develops any of these warning signs:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve and then return with a fever and worse cough
Flu shots are a simple, effective way to keep you, your senior loved ones and everyone around you healthy during flu season. Learn more about flu shots and flu prevention at CDC.gov.