Flu Season | Better Protection for Elderly with ‘Enhanced’ Flu Vaccines
Millions of people across the United States have already been sickened by the influenza virus – the dreaded flu. But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the worst may be yet to come!
Bottom Line: It’s vital to be vaccinated against the flu. But because older people are especially susceptible to the virus and its deadly complications, those over 65 may need the added protection of an “enhanced” flu vaccine.
CDC Warning of “Double-Barreled” Flu Season
The CDC estimates that as many as 21 million people have already contracted the flu this season including 250,000 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 influenza-related deaths.
Unfortunately, the current flu season is poised to become far worse. That’s because there are actually two strains of influenza to worry about this year: A “B” strain that kicked off an earlier-than-usual flu season, and an “A” strain that’s only begun to ramp up.
As a result, a rarely seen “double-barreled” flu season – in which two strains strike back-to-back – has become a distinct possibility. “This season has turned a lot of [what we know about flu] on its head,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist with Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the medical director at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, recently told Healthline. “There’s a lot we know, and even more we don’t know about the flu.”
Unfortunately, this year’s influenza vaccine did not account for the B/Victoria strain that’s already sickened millions. In fact, the CDC estimates the most recent version covers just 58% of B-linked cases.
But that doesn’t mean anyone should forego a flu shot. The current vaccine DOES protect against Influenza A, a strain most experts believe will become far more prevalent in the near future. And while this year’s vaccine isn’t a perfect match, being vaccinated will likely result in less severe illness for those who do contract Influenza B.
Why an Enhanced Flu Vaccine?
If you’re caring for an elderly loved one, you should also ask their doctor about “enhanced” flu vaccines, which are specifically formulated for people 65-years of age and older.
Compared to their younger counterparts, elderly people generally produce 50%-to-75% fewer protective antibodies in response to a standard flu shot. But one enhanced version, FluZone High-Dose, contains significantly more virus antigens as a means of boosting antibody production in those 65 and older.
One recently published study suggested a high-dose vaccine was 24.2% more effective in preventing flu in older adults compared to a standard shot. And another found that Fluzone High-dose was associated with a lower risk of hospital admissions compared with standard-dose Fluzone for people aged 65 years or older, especially those living in long-term care facilities. The adjuvanted flu vaccine is another enhanced option that contains an added ingredient to help improve immune response in older adults. One recent study indicates the adjuvanted vaccine may be more effective in preventing laboratory-confirmed influenza among the elderly compared to a standard dose, non-adjuvanted flu vaccine.
Other Ways to Help Your Elderly Loved One Stay Healthy During Flu Season
Once they’ve been vaccinated, these additional precautions will help your elderly loved one remain safe and healthy during flu season and all year long:
Make Sure They’re Protected Against Pneumonia: Post-influenza pneumonia is the leading cause of death after the flu, and seniors are particularly vulnerable. What’s more, research suggests post-flu pneumonia significantly increases the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke. To reduce the risk of pneumonia, those over 65 should receive two vaccines: PCV13 (Prevnar) is about 75% effective at preventing severe pneumococcal infections, and the PPSV23 (Pneumovax) is up to 85% effective against severe disease. PCV13 should be administered first, followed by PPSV23 a year later.
Practice Effective Handwashing Techniques: Everyone – especially the elderly and their caregivers – should practice good handwashing techniques. Scrub for at least 20 seconds with soap and water before and after eating or cooking, and after using the bathroom, being around someone who’s sick, or blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
Be Conscious of Germs: Everyone should avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth, as they provide germs with easy entry to the rest of your system. Also, be diligent about cleaning doorknobs and any other surface that’s frequently touched in the home — especially if someone is sick.
Stay Away from Sick People: The immune system becomes less robust as we age, so elderly people are far more likely to contract the flu if they’re around someone who’s sick. It’s vital they limit contact with anyone who has the flu, while caregivers and other family members should be careful to sneeze and cough into their arm or a tissue if they become sick.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle All Year Long: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is key to preventing infection. Encourage your elderly loved ones to get regular exercise (at least 150 minutes per week) and eat a nutritious diet.
What to Do if a Senior Gets the Flu
Unfortunately, the flu could still strike, no matter how careful you’ve been. If your elderly loved one becomes ill and you suspect influenza, seek treatment immediately, as potentially deadly complications can develop rapidly. Antivirals like Tamiflu help lessen the severity of the flu, but must be taken within 48 hours of first symptoms in order to be most effective. Acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic), and naproxen (Aleve and generic) can alleviate fever and other symptoms but check with your loved one’s doctors to ensure they won’t interact with any prescription medications they might be taking.
While most people will recover from the flu, influenza can easily turn into an emergency – especially when it hits seniors. Seek emergency medical attention anytime an elderly loved one develops shortness of breath, chest pain, confusion or dizziness, or persistent vomiting, or if they start to improve but suddenly begin to feel worse. And it’s a good idea to contact their doctor if flu symptoms don’t improve in a week or so – even if they show no signs of complications.