Seniors have stood up to COVID-19 and rolled up their sleeves: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says nearly 96 percent have received the coronavirus vaccine. They’re smart to choose the shot as protection against hospitalization and death. For the same reason, it’s important that people ages 65 and over, and others at high risk for complications, get their annual flu shot.
Seniors are greatly at risk for pneumonia and other serious influenza complications. In the past, up to 51,000 yearly deaths have been linked to the flu. As many as 85 percent of flu-related deaths and 70 percent of hospitalizations come from those 65 and older, according to the CDC.
“Seniors are more likely to have a more serious illness because their immune systems, as they age, are not as strong as they once were,” said Dr. Lisa McAdams, senior medical director at Zing Health. “That makes them more susceptible to serious illness when they do get exposed if they haven’t been vaccinated.”
“Seniors also have more chronic health conditions,” McAdams said. For instance, high blood pressure and diabetes predispose patients to more serious complications from the flu. African American populations suffer disproportionately from these conditions. Overall, Black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native communities are at a greater risk of developing the serious flu complications that put patients in hospital beds or intensive care units.
How Do the Different Flu Vaccines Work?
The flu vaccine essentially primes your immune system, training it to fight off infections. The shot doesn’t have live viruses, just their protein coats. These stripped-down shells help the immune system recognize the flu virus. If exposed to flu, the body recognizes the threat and jumps into action immediately to fight the foreign invader. This keeps you from getting sick—or at least seriously sick.
“Sometimes people are afraid that they’re going to get sick,” Dr. McAdams said. “The flu vaccine does not cause people to get the flu. The virus has been killed, or it’s been modified so that it won’t make you actively sick.”
Just like the COVID-19 vaccine, there are a number of different manufacturers of the flu shot. All flu vaccines being used this year are classified as quadrivalent vaccines, meaning they fight off infection from four different types of flu viruses: two from the influenza A group, and two from the influenza B group.
A high-dose vaccine, recommended for seniors, allows for a stronger response and stronger prevention for the flu than just getting one of the regular vaccines. But if the high dose is not available at a convenient location, don’t let that stop you from getting one of the other vaccines.
If you don’t like getting jabbed with a needle, doctors can administer a flu nasal spray. However, this alternative is not approved for people aged 50 and older, or those with weakened immune systems.
What Other Vaccines Should Seniors Get?
It’s not just COVID-19 and the flu that seniors can ward off with vaccination. Health experts also recommend all seniors get vaccinated against pneumococcal disease, which includes pneumonia and other bacterial infections. Once you reach 65, you only need to get the pneumococcal vaccine one time.
“There are a host of vaccines that are important to all people, including our seniors,” Dr. McAdams said. “The best advice is to talk to your physician about what vaccines you’ve had and what would be recommended at this point.” Protection against shingles is one of the most vital, as well as boosters for things such as tetanus and hepatitis A and B.
Vaccines can be inconvenient or have mild side effects. “You may have some soreness in your arm, or you may have a little bit of achiness or a headache, which is something that we see after any vaccine,” said Dr. McAdams. “That’s just your body’s response, that immune system kicking in to recognize that foreign substance so that it’s building that immunity.”
Don’t let your mobility get in the way of immunization. Your doctor’s office visit should give you all the vaccines you need, but flu vaccines are also available (and covered) at any local pharmacy and community vaccination events. Zing Health members can get no-cost transportation to their doctor or pharmacy to receive vaccinations.
If you have yet to get your COVID-19 vaccine or are recommended for a booster shot, you can get COVID-19 and flu shots in just one visit. It’s a good idea for the shots to be given on different arms.
Finally, there’s no reason to worry about the cost because Medicare Advantage plans include flu shots at no cost, and COVID-19 vaccines are free for all as well. There’s no co-pay for any of the vaccines.
Zing Health is available at 1-866-946-4458 (TTY 711) to help members with any questions about vaccines or to direct them where to go for vaccination.