Time for a Flu Shot?
Health officials are urging older adults not to forget the influenza (flu) virus even though the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to dominate news headlines.
The flu has been devastating the health of thousands of children and adults before the novel coronavirus disease began spreading around the world. This is why health experts say getting a flu shot is vital to staying healthy.
Flu is more than just a bad cold. It is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that affect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. The illness can come on suddenly and cause hospitalization and even death.
Vaccinations are given as a way to prevent serious health consequences from the flu. Studies have found that a flu vaccine can reduce the risk of hospitalization and doctor’s visits for flu-related illnesses. Research also shows that flu vaccines reduce the severity of illness in people who were vaccinated but still got sick.
The flu vaccine helps the immune system to produce antibodies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The antibodies attack the infection caused by the flu virus strains used to make the vaccine.
Because flu virus strains differ each year, researchers try to predict what will be the most prevalent flu strains circulating and then update flu vaccines. The CDC says vaccines reduce the risk of flu illness by between 40 percent to 60 percent in the years when the flu vaccines match the circulating flu viruses.
Flu Causes Life-Threatening Complications
Influenza can make chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, even worse. For instance, an older adult hospitalized with the flu has a 12-fold increased risk of heart attack and about a sixfold increased risk for stroke, said Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert and director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccination Research Group.
The CDC notes that the flu can also lead to myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), pneumonia, respiratory and kidney failure, and other complications, including death.
According to the CDC, an estimated 70 percent to 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths in the United States occur among people 65 years and older. The agency’s statistics also show that between 50 percent to 70 percent of seasonal flu hospitalizations occur among people in that age group.
Flu Vaccines For Older Adults
Adults 65 and older receive either a high-dose flu vaccine called Fluzone High-Dose, or an adjuvanted flu vaccine called, FLUAD.
A high-dose flu vaccine contains four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot. Antigens prompt the body to make antibodies. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the high-dose flu vaccine was 24 percent more effective in protecting people 65 years old and over from the flu compared to a standard-dose vaccine.
FLAUD combines a standard dose flu vaccine with an adjuvant, an ingredient added to create a stronger immune response to the vaccine.
The CDC notes that older adults who get a high-dose flu vaccine or an adjuvant flu vaccine may have more side effects than people who received a standard-dose flu vaccine.
Common side effects from any flu shot include soreness, tenderness, redness, and swelling in the upper arm where the shot was given. The high-dose flu and adjuvant flu shots can result in additional side effects, such as fever, headache, muscle aches, and tiredness.
Flu and COVID-19 Share Symptoms
With the coronavirus continuing to spread during flu season, it’s difficult to tell, based on symptoms alone, whether a person has the flu or coronavirus. Health experts say that it’s possible to have the flu and the coronavirus at the same time since both illnesses share symptoms.
Some of the symptoms common to both flu and COVID-19 include:
- Fever or feeling feverish (not everyone with flu will have a fever)
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children than adults)
While some COVID-19 and flu symptoms may be the same, the time frame for developing the symptoms differ. For instance, a person develops flu symptoms between one to four days after infection. A person can develop COVID-19 symptoms five days after being infected, but as early as two days after infection or as late as 14 days after infection.
While there are differences between the coronavirus disease and the flu, Poland noted that COVID-19 precautions—wearing masks, social distancing, and hand sanitation—are just as effective for the flu.
Poland also pointed out that there has always been flu outbreaks in the Southern Hemisphere. However, for the first time in modern history, “in the areas and nations where people are wearing masks, there is almost no influenza.”