It’s easy to write an illness off as no biggie when it’s been widely circulating your whole life, but the flu is and can be deadly. That’s especially true as you get older. “As you age, your immune system weakens, and it becomes harder to fight off illnesses, including those caused by flu-related complications,” says Angela Patterson, DNP, FNP-BC, chief nurse practitioner officer at MinuteClinic and vice president at CVS Health.
Severe flu complications like pneumonia and sepsis—which disproportionately affect older adults—usually lead to hospitalizations, Patterson says. This is of particular concern this year because of the ongoing pandemic. “America’s ERs and critical care units are already stressed with caring for COVID-19 patients, and that’s likely to get worse as we head into the winter months,” Patterson says. She stresses that it’s vital we all take steps to stay healthy in an effort to reduce the number of flu cases and related hospitalizations, which can help preserve our health care resources for coronavirus patients.
So we’re debunking four myths about how adults 60+ can protect themselves during flu season. Despite how common the flu is, there are still plenty of misconceptions floating around. Here are the biggies you need to be aware of so you can take steps to remain healthy.
Myth No.1: It’s no big deal to skip the flu vaccine.
For everyone able, it’s vital to vaccinated against the flu, Patterson says. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses that flu vaccination is especially important for adults 65 years and older. Why? They make up most hospitalizations and deaths from flu and from COVID-19.
The flu vaccine works in two ways. It helps ward off the flu. But it also lowers the odds that if you happen to get sick, you’ll have a severe case and need to be hospitalized. According to one study published in 2018, flu vaccination among adults from 2012 to 2015 reduced the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) with the flu by 82%.
Myth No.2: A past history with the flu means you’ll be okay now if you get it.
If you’ve had the flu in the past and done relatively OK, it’s easy to assume you’ll have the same outcome in the future. But the flu becomes more dangerous as you age, due to your weakening immune system. Between 70% and 90% of flu-related deaths are in people 65 and up, and up to 70% of flu-related hospitalizations are in people 65 and older, the CDC says.
“Seniors 65+ are at greatest risk for the flu, especially those who are immunocompromised—cancer patients, for instance—or those who have chronic health conditions,” Patterson says. Older adults are also more likely to have chronic health conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obstructive pulmonary disease. “Many have co-morbidity issues—two or even more chronic conditions at the same time,” Patterson says. “When you combine viruses like COVID-19 and influenza with these conditions, serious heart, circulatory, and respiratory complications may develop.”
Myth No.3: There’s one type of flu vaccine for folks 65+.
There are actually several. If you’re 65 or older, you have two options to choose from: a high-dose flu vaccine and what’s known as an adjuvanted flu vaccine. Both are considered inactivated vaccines because they’re made with dead influenza viruses.
Here’s what you need to know about each:
High-dose flu vaccine: This has four times the amount of antigen (a substance that stimulates your immune system to create antibodies) as the regular flu shot. That prompts your body to create more antibodies against the flu. One clinical trial of more than 30,000 people found that adults who were 65 and older who received this vaccine were 24% less likely to contract the flu than those who got the regular vaccine.
Adjuvanted vaccine: This is the standard flu vaccine, but with an additive called MF59, which can create a stronger immune response to the flu, if you happen to encounter it, the CDC says.
Talk to your doctor about which vaccine is best for you.
Myth No. 4: Older adults can get the nasal spray flu vaccine.
The CDC does not recommend that older adults get the nasal spray flu vaccine because it contains live but weakened virus that may be problematic for those with weaker immune systems. In general, the nasal spray flu vaccine is geared more toward children and younger adults with stronger immune systems, the CDC says.
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