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The flu is nothing to sneeze at, especially if you’re an older adult.
About 226,000 Americans will land in the hospital this year as a result of the flu and its complications, and anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 will die from flu-related illnesses. Adults 65 and older will account for 60 percent of the hospital stays and 90 percent of the deaths.
As people age, their immune system typically weakens and their ability to ward off diseases declines. That puts older adults at increased risk of the flu. Moreover, the virus can cause complications for those already struggling with chronic health problems.
As flu season approaches this fall, you’ll want to wash your hands and stay away from sick people to reduce the spread of germs. But as useful as those preventive steps are, an annual vaccination remains the best way to help protect yourself against the flu virus.
You have several flu shot options. Besides the traditional flu vaccine that helps protect against three strains of the virus, there’s now a “quadrivalent” vaccine that helps protect against four strains.
You can also choose a higher-dose vaccine specifically designed for older adults. By improving the production of antibodies in older patients, the higher dose can provide a stronger immune response and, hopefully, better protection against infection when you’re exposed to the flu virus.
Talk to your doctor about which flu shot option is right for you.
Now is a good time to get your vaccination. The vaccine will protect you within two weeks. The flu season typically begins in October, peaks in January or February and runs through May.
If you’re enrolled in Medicare Part B, your flu shot won’t cost you anything, as long as your doctor, health clinic or pharmacy agrees not to charge you more than Medicare pays. There’s no deductible or co-payment. The same is true for the higher-dose vaccine option.
If you were vaccinated last year, you’ll still need another shot this year, since your immunity to flu viruses wanes after a year. Also, the types of viruses usually change from season to season, so a new vaccine is made each year to fight that season’s most likely strains.
Despite the higher risk that flu and its complications pose to older adults, the vaccination rate within this age group remains much lower than it should be. Only 65 percent of adults 65 and older are vaccinated each year, far short of the public health goal of 90 percent for this group.
Why? Some older adults don’t understand that the flu can be serious and life threatening, so they don’t think a flu shot is worth their time and effort. Others resist annual vaccination because they believe it’s risky, even though decades of experience have shown flu shots to be safe and effective.
If you’re concerned about a serious allergic reaction or some other medical condition that may make the flu vaccine unsafe for you, you should consult your doctor before a vaccination. Otherwise, it’s important to remember that you can’t get the flu from the flu shot.
Side effects are rare. Most people notice nothing after their vaccination. A few may have sore muscles or a slight fever. But those side effects usually last just a day or two.
No matter how healthy or youthful you may feel, don’t wait to be vaccinated. When you get your shot, you’ll protect not only yourself but also those around you. By avoiding the flu, you’ll avoid giving it to family and friends.