The Influenza Virus and the Elderly
Nov 04, 2019 12:18PM
By Susan Meyers
Each year as fall rolls around, people start hearing the call to get vaccinated for the flu. But does one need to get the flu vaccine every year? The simple answer is yes.
The influenza shot is the best way to prevent the flu, which can have serious and even fatal consequences, especially in the elderly.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates there are more than 20,000 deaths from the flu each year and more than 200,000 hospitalizations. Most of these deaths occur in the elderly and the very young.
“Older adults have a high risk of complications and even death due to the flu because their immune systems are weaker,” says Dr. Alberto Marcelin, family practitioner at Nebraska Medicine. “It is estimated that 50 to 70% of flu-related hospitalizations occur in patients 65 years or older and approximately 90% of flu-related deaths occur in people over 60 years old.”
Getting the flu vaccine not only boosts a person’s immune system in protecting against the influenza virus but also decreases their chances of obtaining other serious infections. “If you don’t get vaccinated and get a severe influenza infection and end up in the hospital, you are more likely to contract other serious infections with organisms like methicillin—resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA),” says Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan, infectious disease specialist at CHI Health. “The flu can also make other chronic conditions like heart disease, emphysema, or asthma even worse.”
The effectiveness of the vaccine varies each year depending on the strain of flu circulating in the community and how well a person’s body responds to the vaccine. “Even if you acquire influenza after vaccination, the severity of your illness will be lessened if you get the influenza vaccine,” Vivekanandan says. “The flu vaccine primes your body so the body can create antibodies and is ready to fight against the circulating strain.”
It’s also important to note that the flu vaccine does not cause the flu. “It’s impossible to get the flu from the vaccine,” Vivekanandan says. “It is an inactivated vaccine. There is no live virus present to replicate and cause infection.”
Someone who has been recently vaccinated may develop redness, mild muscle aches, and even a low-grade fever for a day or two following administration of the shot, but these symptoms are nothing in comparison to influenza, which can cause high fevers and severe debilitating muscle aches, and usually lasts three to five days.
Determining how bad the illness will be each year is basically a guessing game. “The flu is predictably unpredictable,” says Dr. Anne O’Keefe, senior epidemiologist at Douglas County Health Department.
“Every spring, scientists try to determine what the flu virus is going to be based on what’s circulating in other parts of the world. If it’s a strain that hasn’t changed and has been around for a couple years, you will have better immunity. However, if it is a completely new strain, like the swine flu we experienced in 2009, it can quickly become a pandemic. An early winter can also increase the number of flu cases,” she says.
This year, the vaccine has been prepared to protect against the A and B strains and it was recently updated to be more effective against these strains, notes O’Keefe.
Those who are 65 years and older should get the flu vaccine in early September, or as soon as it becomes available, O’Keefe says. It takes about two weeks for the body to respond to the vaccine and develop protective antibodies—so people want to get the vaccine a couple of weeks before fall hits.
People in this age group should also ask for the high dose vaccine, which has been shown to be more effective and offer greater protection to those over age 65, Marcelin says.
Other preventive measures include practicing good hygiene and using a hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available. Avoid environments where other people are ill. Children should also be vaccinated early as they are often incubators of the flu and may hasten the spread of the virus.
Those who think they have been exposed or begin to develop common flu symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, or rapid heart rate should talk to their doctor about getting the antiviral medication called Tamiflu. This medication can reduce the severity and duration of the influenza infection. Those who are exposed to someone with influenza can also request Tamiflu as a prophylaxis to prevent the infection from developing, Vivekanandan says.
While the flu vaccination is especially important for the elderly and the very young, everyone should get the vaccine. “When you get your yearly influenza vaccination, you are not only protecting yourself but also protecting the people you love, and people in your community who are at higher risk for serious complications like the elderly and the young,” Vivekanandan says.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.