The flu can make you really sick very quickly. But getting an annual flu shot will cut your chances of coming down with the illness by at least half, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And if you do get sick, the shot may make your illness milder.
What to consider
Nearly 70 percent of people ages 65 and up got a flu shot during the 2015-16 flu season, but only 45 percent of those 50 to 64 did so, which leaves a lot of people still vulnerable to catching the illness. The flu can leave you with muscle aches, fever, a cough, sore throat, headaches, and an exhaustion that can knock you flat for weeks.
Getting the shot now, whether at your doctor’s office, pharmacy, place of worship, or even at the airport, will protect you until early spring, when the virus subsides. Depending upon where you go, you won’t always have a choice about which flu shot to get. But if you do, you should know that some flu vaccines protect better than others:
• Adults 50 and up should consider the quadrivalent vaccine, which contains four different inactivated strains of the flu that researchers predict will be in circulation in the upcoming season. The standard shot, called the trivalent, protects against three of the most common flu strains. The quadrivalent is designed to protect against two influenza A viruses and a B virus, like the trivalent, but adds another B virus to give broader protection. Cost depends on your health insurance, but the CDC lists the consumer price of the quadrivalent shot at $14 to $18.
• Adults 65 and up can opt for the Fluzone High-Dose or the new FLUAD shot. Both are trivalent vaccines specially designed for seniors. Fluzone High-Dose contains four times the standard shot’s flu-antigen dose, which is meant to induce a stronger immune response for better protection against the flu. A randomized controlled trial involving more than 30,000 community-dwelling people age 65 and up found that it was 24 percent more effective than the standard vaccine. New this season is the FLUAD, also made to create a stronger immune response.
The CDC cautions, however, that both the Fluzone High-Dose and FLUAD vaccines may cause more side effects than a standard-dose shot. Those may include pain, redness, or swelling at the injection side, headache, muscle aches, and discomfort. But the pain won’t be felt in your wallet: Medicare Part B covers 100 percent of the cost of any flu shot you choose.
The nasal spray vaccine is not recommended for use by any age group this season because of concerns about its effectiveness.
Why the flu shot is essential
A CDC study published in August 2016 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases shows just why it’s so important for folks 50 and up to get their flu vaccine. The study, which examined data from three recent flu seasons, found that people in this age group who got a flu shot cut their risk of getting hospitalized from the flu by 57 percent.
People age 65 and up are at high risk of serious flu complications and account for the majority of flu hospitalizations and flu deaths each year. And adults 50 and up are a priority group for vaccination because they may be more likely to have chronic medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or chronic lung disease, that put them at higher risk of severe sickness if they catch the flu.
“The flu can take any person in that age group and put them in the emergency room in 24 hours,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Whatever vaccine you decide upon, don’t wait until the peak flu season—December through March—to get your shot. “It is time to get your flu vaccine now,” Schaffner says. “A vaccine delayed often is a vaccine not received.”
—With reporting by Amy Kraft