For most people, getting the flu means having to deal with flu symptoms that could include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea, and those infected with the flu could have respiratory symptoms without a fever.

However, it has been widely recognized for some time now that people who are 65 years and older are at a greater risk of developing serious complications from the flu.  Human immune defenses become weaker with age, and because of this, it’s estimate that anywhere from 70-85% of season flu-related deaths have occurred in people who are 65 and older and up to 70% of all flu-related hospitalizations have also occurred as well.

In response to these alarming figures, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has outlined a series of steps seniors should take to prevent serious help complications arising from the flu.

Get a flu shot

Getting a flu shot is the single best way to stay healthy during flu season.  The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a seasonal flu shot by the end of October every year if possible.  However, flu viruses circulate for many months, and as long as an active flu season continues it is advisable to get a flu shot into January or later. 

Vaccinations are especially important for people 65 and older, and getting a shot each season is imperative because flu vaccines are often updated to keep up with changing viruses that circulate each year, and because immunization strength tends to lessen over the course of a year. 

Each year, the CDC determines what the most common virus will be and develops a vaccine based on that information.  It should be noted that different vaccines may be applied depending on a person’s age group, and getting a flu shot that is approved for people 65 and older is the absolute best way to ensure protection.  In all cases, it takes about two weeks for immunity from a vaccination to set in.

There are two vaccines designed specifically for people 65 and older

The high dose vaccine contains about four times the amount of antigen found in a regular flu shot.  It is associated with a stronger immune response, meaning there is a higher antibody production.  Clinical trials have shown that adults 65 and older who got a high dose vaccine had 24% fewer influenza inflections when compared to those receiving a standard dose.

The adjuvanted flu vaccine, also known as Fluad, is made with MF59 adjuvant and is designed to create a stronger immune response to vaccination.  In a recent Canadian study, Fluad was 63% more effective than regular dose unadjuvanted flu shots.  This vaccination was made available for the first time in the United States during the 21016-17 flu season.

Both of these types of specialized flu shots may result in added mild side effects over and above those who get standard dose flu shots.  These side effects can include pain, redness, and swelling at the injection side as well as headaches, muscle aches and malaise.

The CDC recommends that people 65 and older not get the nasal spray flu vaccine, the intradermal flu shot, or jet injector flu vaccine.

However, the CDC does recommend that people 65 and older get pneumococcal vaccines, making sure they are up-to-date with their shots to protect against pneumococcal disease, including pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections.  It should be noted that pneumococcal pneumonia is cited of an example of a serious flu-related complication that can cause death in seniors.

Practice good health habits and get medical help quickly if you need it

One of the best ways to keep from getting the flu is to practice good health habits.  This includes washing your hands often, avoiding others who are sick, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, and clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school.  You should also get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of fluids, eat nutritious food and stay physically active.

If you do come down with the flu or feel that you might be getting sick, seek out medical help as soon as possible.  You may be able to be treated with antiviral drugs early on in your infection to minimize the impact of the flu on you.  The benefit to getting treatment early is the highest if it is started within the first two days of coming down with the illness.

Your flu shot is probably covered by insurance

Check with your insurance provider to see if a flu shot is covered under your policy.  If you are enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid, there’s a good chance if you are over 65 that you will be able to get a flu shot at no charge.  Again, check with your provider and then schedule a shot as early in the season as possible for maximum protection.