Why it’s important for older Americans to get a flu shot

How to navigate flu season in light of the coronavirus pandemic

In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, many people believed COVID-19 was no worse than the flu. We now know it’s much worse, but that doesn’t mean we can forget about getting our flu shot.

The annual flu vaccination is especially important this year, experts say, because hospitals are already struggling to care for coronavirus patients.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says the flu vaccination is especially important for adults 65 years and older, who account for most hospitalizations and deaths from flu and from COVID-19.

In recent years, the CDC writes on its website, it’s estimated that between 70% and 85% of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 and older, and between 50% and 70% of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people in this age group.

The CDC recommends that almost everyone 6 months and older get a seasonal flu shot each year by the end of October. That’s especially important for people 65 and older because they are at high risk of developing serious complications, some of which can be life threatening.

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In addition to pneumonia, “serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure),” the CDC states. “Flu virus infection of the respiratory tract can trigger an extreme inflammatory response in the body and can lead to sepsis, the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Flu also can make chronic medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by flu.”

If that’s not enough to persuade you to get inoculated, consider that experts say you can have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.

“While it’s not yet clear how the two viruses interact, doctors believe the flu could leave patients more vulnerable to a severe attack of COVID-19. Coming down with both at once could be devastating,” the AJC’s Helena Oliviero wrote last month.

“Two epidemics hitting around the same time could be very, very bad,” Dr. Walt Orenstein, associate director of Emory Vaccine Center and professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, told Oliviero. “You don’t want to get COVID-19 and influenza. And you don’t want to be recovering from one and then happen to get the other one on top of that. That’s not good either.”

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The CDC recommends people 65 and older get the flu shot, not the nasal spray. There are regular flu shots that are approved for use in people 65 years and older and there also are two vaccines designed specifically for this group.

The high dose vaccine contains four times the antigen — the part of the vaccine that helps your body build up protection against flu viruses — than standard dose inactivated flu vaccines. The higher dose of antigen is intended to give older people a better immune response and better protection against the flu.

The adjuvanted flu vaccine is also available for older people. An adjuvant is an ingredient of a vaccine that helps promote a better immune response. Adjuvants also can reduce the amount of virus needed for production of a vaccine, which can allow for greater supplies of vaccine to be manufactured.

In addition to getting a flu shot, people 65 and older should take the same preventive actions the CDC recommends for everyone, including avoiding people who are sick, covering coughs and washing hands often.