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Why seniors need extra flu protection

January 07, 2020 | UCI Health
senior woman getting flu shot

As 2019 drew to a close, Southern California was experiencing an early start to flu season. But it’s not too late to be immunized, which is essential if you are age 65 and older.

Protection from influenza — a contagious respiratory infection typically accompanied by fever, muscle aches and coughing — is especially critical for older people, says UCI Health geriatrician Dr. Manisha Perera.

So much so that specially formulated high-dose vaccines are available to provide enhanced protection from the flu virus to seniors, who are at greater risk of complications.

These high-dose flu shots are routinely offered to patients at the nationally ranked UCI Health SeniorHealth Center, says Perera, who is also an assistant professor of family medicine at the UCI School of Medicine.

High-dose vaccines

What is a high-dose flu vaccine and why should seniors ask for them?

A high-dose vaccine contains four times more antigen than a regular flu shot, and it is associated with a better immune response.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that in a clinical trial of 30,000 older adults, those who received the high-dose vaccine had 24% fewer cases of flu than those receiving the regular influenza immunization.

Why do seniors need a higher dose?

Perera says older adults are at higher risk than others to catch flu viruses.

There are for two reasons for this:

  • As people age, their immune system’s effectiveness declines, making seniors more susceptible to viruses and other diseases.
  • Second, seniors tend to have more exposure to the healthcare settings and as a result, have more opportunity to get infected.

The vaccine, itself, is essentially the same, but because it is a higher dose, side-effects such as local swelling and pain at the injection site may be slightly increased, she says.

Higher risk for complications

Seniors are not only more susceptible to catching the flu, they also are more likely to experience complications because they tend to have chronic health problems, such as heart or lung problems. These conditions can be exacerbated by the flu.

In addition, a lower immune response can make seniors more susceptible to developing pneumonia once the flu virus kicks in.

That’s why SeniorHealth Center physicians recommend that people age 65 and older also get the pneumonia vaccine.

“It’s typically a one-time vaccine,” Perera says.

“It protects against pneumonia and other things, like sepsis, but if people do get sick, those who’ve been vaccinated experience reduced severity,” she adds. “Research shows that people who get both the flu and pneumonia vaccines do better.”

The bottom line

It usually takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to become fully effective, so there’s little time to waste.

“If you haven’t gotten a flu shot, you should get it right away,” says Perera.

“And if you already have flu-like symptoms, you should contact your primary care provider as soon as possible, so they can start you on Tamiflu, which can reduce the number of days you are ill.”

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