There's been a lot of debate about the vaccines developed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic since they were first introduced toward the end of 2020. Regardless of where you stand on that subject, most people agree that yearly vaccine shots to combat influenza–a respiratory infection–or “flu” is a good thing, particularly for vulnerable populations and people age 65 and over. While the flu shot for seniors has been called “the best protection against the flu” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you might still have questions.  

Should seniors get the flu vaccine?

Unless you or your loved ones have been advised not to by a health care professional, all seniors should get yearly vaccinations for the flu. So that's a big YES.

In fact, the CDC recommends annual flu shots for everyone ages six months and older, including caretakers and anyone who is around you or your loved ones regularly.

Seniors typically have weaker immune systems, and the right vaccine helps make it stronger. When a senior's immune system is weak it becomes harder to fight off infections, including flu-related complications. The complications that can develop with the flu include:

  • Ear infections
  • Sinus infections
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia

Suffering from the flu is serious enough on its own, and these complications can make matters worse. The vaccinated still might get the flu, but it probably won't be as severe and probably won't lead to serious complications, so it's best to get the shot ahead of the flu season and allow roughly two weeks to build immunity to the latest versions of the flu.

What can you do to fight the flu?

While the vaccine is your best shot for fighting the flu, there are other steps that can be taken to protect against it. Some of these recommendations may be familiar, as they overlap with recommended practices to fight the spread of COVID-19.They include:

  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly: Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time.
  • Use an alcohol-based sanitizer on your hands. It’s a great alternative when soap and water aren't available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. This is especially important when you’re out.
  • Avoid crowds when the flu is spreading in your area during flu season. The more people you’re around, the more risk there is for infection.
  • Avoid being in close contact with others who are sick or are showing flu symptoms. Droplets from an infected person can reach a susceptible person up to about 10 feet away!
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze. Make sure to then wash your hands.
  • Regularly clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces, such as counters, light switches or doorknobs. This can help to prevent the spread of infection from touching a surface with the virus on it and then your face.
  • Practice good health habits. Get regular exercise, get enough sleep, drink plenty of fluids, eat a healthy diet and manage your stress.

Are there any side effects for seniors who get the flu vaccine?

While a small number of people may have some serious side effects from the vaccine, the majority of seniors experience mild, short-lasting effects which often resolve within a few days. These common symptoms include pain, redness, or swelling on the body where a senior took the injection, along with headaches, muscle aches, and other forms of discomfort.

In some rare cases, seniors can have a life-threatening reaction to a dose of the vaccine. Other more serious side effects include development of a severe oculo-respiratory syndrome (red eyes and a cough and/or sore throat and/or hoarseness) and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). GBS is a very rare condition that can result in weakness and paralysis of the body's muscles.

Since some people do experience more serious side effects, it’s always a good idea to speak to a health care professional to learn more about the risks and to identify which version of the vaccine–there are different vaccines made for different populations and even differ in how a person takes it–is most appropriate for you or your loved ones.

It’s important to note that a senior who has experienced a serious side effect in the past still may be able to take the latest version of the vaccine, but it is essential to speak with a health care provider before moving forward.

Why do people—including seniors—need a flu shot every year?

Because the flu can evolve quickly, the vaccine used last year might not protect against the new version of the virus this year. So, it's always good to be current and take the newest dose ahead of what's commonly called “flu season”—roughly October to May. Since protection from the flu vaccine lasts approximately six months, getting the shot in September or October should provide coverage throughout the season.

While some flu seasons are worse than others, people age 65 and over are usually impacted the hardest during this time. In fact, it is estimated by the CDC that between 70%–85% of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in seniors, with the same group representing 50%–70% of all hospitalizations.

Although no vaccine is 100% effective, getting vaccinated for the flu and following these safety tips will give you and your loved ones the best chance at staying healthy and happy during each and every flu season!

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