Every winter brings the risk of getting the flu. Even though it’s a common and familiar disease, it’s easy to forget that thousands of people die from flu every year. Fortunately the senior flu shot is an easy way for older adults to reduce their risk of catching it.
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Why Should Older Adults Get the Flu Shot?
Adults age 65 and older who live at home have the same chance of catching the flu as anyone else. Unfortunately, they are much more likely to develop serious complications from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC estimates that 70% to 85% of flu-related deaths in the United States occur in people age 65 and older. The agency also estimates that this group makes up over half of all flu hospitalizations. That means it’s more important than ever for older adults to protect themselves.
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What Is Different About the Senior Flu Shot?
Most seasonal flu shots recommended by the CDC are still available for older adults. People over age 65 now have two additional options for flu vaccines that are specifically designed for their age group —a high-dose flu vaccine and an adjuvanted flu vaccine.
Everyone’s immune system becomes weaker with age, no matter how healthy you are or how well you eat and exercise. A less effective immune system does not respond as strongly to vaccines as does a younger immune system. The two senior flu shots are specially designed to ensure that an older immune system responds well to the vaccine.
How the flu vaccine works
To understand how the senior flu shot is different, it helps to know how flu vaccines work.
A flu vaccine introduces pieces of a flu virus into the body. The virus is unactivated during the vaccine manufacturing process so it cannot cause the flu. When it enters the body through the vaccine, the immune system recognizes it as a possibly harmful intruder.
An antigen is the part of the virus that the immune system recognizes as foreign. The immune system then creates an army of antibodies to attack that antigen. If a live flu virus enters the body, the antibodies see the antigen and attack before the virus can cause infection.
The differences between the regular and senior flu shots
Two other vaccines are indicated for people 65 and older, but no complete data exists on their effectiveness compared to the regular flu vaccine. However, several studies suggest the senior flu shot is more effective in people 65 and older.
- The high-dose flu vaccine, called Fluzone® High-Dose, contains four times as many antigens as a regular flu shot. It causes the body to produce many more antibodies than the regular seasonal flu shot. One study showed older adults who got the high-dose shot caught the flu 24% less often than adults who got the regular shot.
- The adjuvanted flu vaccine, called Fluad®, does not contain extra antigens. Instead, it contains an additional ingredient — called an adjuvant — that boosts the immune system’s response to the vaccine. It’s like giving the immune system an extra shot of caffeine to kick it into action. There are two different Fluad vaccines: trivalent, produced from three different strains of the flu virus, and quadrivalent, produced from four different flu strains.
The side effects from each senior flu shot are similar to side effects from the regular flu shot. You might experience redness, pain, or swelling where you received the shot. Some people also may have a headache, nausea, muscle ache, or a general feeling of discomfort for a day or two.
Who Qualifies for the Senior Flu Shot? Is There a Cost Difference?
The CDC recommends the senior flu shot for everyone age 65 or older who does not have a medical reason to skip the flu shot. The CDC does not recommend one flu vaccine over the other for older adults. You can choose any flu vaccine available for your age group.
Medicare covers the full cost of any flu shot in adults who participate in the program. If you have different health insurance, the Affordable Care Act requires all flu shots — including senior flu shots — to be covered. If you do not have insurance, costs range from $0 to $40 at most pharmacies.
Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Carlos A. DiazGranados, Andrew J. Dunning, Murray Kimmel, Daniel Kirby, et al. Efficacy of High-Dose versus Standard-Dose Influenza Vaccine in Older Adults. New England Journal of Medicine. August 14, 2014. Link
Flu & People 65 Years and Older. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Fluzone High-Dose Seasonal Influenza Vaccine. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Past Seasons Estimated Influenza Disease Burden. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link
Saundra Latham. Where to Get Cheap Flu Shots: Walmart vs. CVS vs. Costco and More. Cheapism. September 14, 2020. Link
Will the Affordable Care Act cover my flu shot? US Department of Health and Human Services. Link
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