Flu Vaccination in the Elderly
Influenza (the flu) can be an awful experience no matter your age or general health. It has been recognized for many years that people 65 years and older are at an even greater risk of complications from the flu that can lead to hospitalization or even death. The reason for this is because healthy adults’ immune defenses become weaker with age, therefore, people 65 years and older bear the greatest burden of the disease. Because of this and the risks to the elderly, senior flu prevention is especially important.
Seasonal flu is one of the most contagious illnesses. It is spread by respiratory drops through coughing and sneezing. Someone with the flu may touch something such as a door knob, telephone, or shopping cart. Then another person touches these same things and may transfer those drops to their mouth or nose. It’s not enough to just stay away from people who are sick because people may be contagious a day before they develop any noticeable symptoms and for up to 5 days after becoming sick. Flu symptoms include:
Runny or stuffy nose
Occasionally nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
Due to their vulnerability, senior adults often develop complications once they get the flu. Most hospitalizations and deaths from the flu are also related to pneumonia and other respiratory disorders. Some common conditions that can be exacerbated by the flu include:
Congestive heart failure
Asthma, emphysema, and other respiratory conditions
Call your doctor immediately if any of the following occur:
Shortness of breath
Symptoms don’t improve after 3-4 days
After flu symptoms improve, you suddenly develop signs of a more serious problem including nausea, vomiting, high fever, shaking chills, chest pain, or coughing with thick, yellow-green mucus
Once you get the flu, there are only a few things that can be done to treat it.
Seek medical advice quickly. A doctor may prescribe Tamiflu or Relenza, both anti-viral medications which can keep the flu virus from spreading inside the body and shorten the duration of symptoms. Both of these must be taken within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms for optimal results. Neither is a substitute for the vaccine as they do not prevent the virus.
Drink plenty of fluids
Stay away from others to prevent the spread of the virus
What to do to help prevent the virus:
Practicing good hand hygiene by washing hands frequently
Cover nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing and immediately wash hands after
Stay away from people who are sick
Flu season typically runs from October through the end of February, but some years it runs into March and April. Most seasons flu activity peaks in January or later. The flu virus changes every season, so every year the vaccine contains different strains of the virus. This is why it is important to receive a vaccination every year. Getting a flu shot one year and not the next will not protect you from that year’s particular strain. Your body’s response from the vaccination declines over time and the virus itself is constantly changing so the formulation of the vaccine is reviewed and updated each year to best match the prevalent virus. When you receive the flu vaccine, it causes antibodies to develop in your body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide the protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. Since it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop, it’s smart to get vaccinated before the virus shows up in the community. The flu shot is recommended for everyone six months and older. The more people who get the vaccine in your community, the more the virus can be contained. There is now a newer high dose vaccine that helps create a stronger immune response in the patient’s body and is approved for use in people 65 years of age and older. It contains about 4 times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shots. Please speak with your primary care physician about this new vaccine and it availability.
A common myth is that the flu vaccine “gives” you the flu. It is not possible to get the flu from the injectable flu vaccine, which is made from a killed virus. There is also a version that contains no flu vaccine viruses at all. Most flu shots are given in the arm muscle with a needle. Some may experience a sore arm for a couple days and possibly fatigue, aches, and fever, but these are mild and short-lived. The nasal spray flu vaccine does contain live viruses that are weakened and therefore cannot cause the flu, but is not recommended for use during the 2016-2017 season. It is still possible, however, to get the flu even if you have been vaccinated. The ability of the vaccine to protect a person depends on several different factors including the age and health of the person being vaccinated, and also the “match” of the vaccine to the virus. Scientists study the viruses six months in advance and choose which to include in the vaccine. It’s difficult to determine which flu virus will predominate during a given season. Even in years when the vaccine is not exactly matched, the vaccine can help provide some protection against other strains and possibly decrease the severity of the virus. The flu vaccine can:
Keep you from getting sick with the flu
Reduce associated complications
Make your sickness mild if you do still get the flu
Protect the people around you who may be more susceptible such as young children and the elderly
Allergic reactions are rare due to the vaccine, but it should be known that if you have an allergy to eggs, you may have an allergy to the flu vaccine. The vaccine contains traces of egg protein because the virus is grown in eggs. Please discuss this with your primary care physician as there are still options for receiving the flu vaccine. While we may be midway into our flu season, it is still not too late to receive your flu vaccine. As previously stated, in most communities the flu virus rates spike in January and February, so there is still time. Get vaccinated and get protected!