A new TV lineup and beautiful foliage aren’t the only things guaranteed to make a comeback this fall. In fact, as soon as September weather, school and other activities prompt more people to congregate indoors, flu season isn’t far behind.
No one wants to spread an infectious disease to family, friends and colleagues, which is why it’s so important to stay up-to-date on the facts about the 2022-2023 flu season and available vaccines.
A quick flu review
While COVID-19 has been grabbing the headlines over the past few years, you can’t forget about the importance of preventing other communicable illnesses, especially the flu. The influenza virus is spread through tiny droplets that become airborne when individuals harboring the virus cough, sneeze or talk. If these droplets land in the mouths or noses of other people nearby, those individuals may become ill.
- 8 to 13 million flu illnesses
- 3.7 to 6.1 million medical visits
- 82,000 to 170,000 flu-related hospitalizations
- 5,000 to 14,000 deaths
Get the flu vax facts
Fortunately, there’s something you can do to reduce your chances of getting the virus as well the onset of serious complications if you do get the flu. Each year, researchers develop vaccines specific to the strains that are prevalent in other parts of the world.
You can amp up your immune system protection with an annual, one-dose vaccine that’s quick, readily available and inexpensive—free, in many cases.
To help you make the best decision for yourself and the people you care about, we’ve consulted the experts to bring you the latest information on this year’s vaccines for flu viruses.
Who should get the flu vaccine?
With rare exception, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the influenza vaccine for everyone age six months and older.
Especially when it comes to seniors, “Everybody should get vaccinated against flu,” advised Dr. Lynne J. Goebel, MD, professor of internal medicine and geriatrics at Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine in Huntington, West Virginia.
Do COVID-19 vaccinations prevent flu?
No. While COVID-19 and influenza are both respiratory viruses and may have similar symptoms, each vaccine targets that specific virus and possibly even a particular strain of that virus.
For the best protection against COVID-19 and the flu, the CDC recommends Americans receive both unless advised otherwise by their physician. Some vaccination sites may offer to give the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine (or booster) at the same time.
Is the vaccine guaranteed to prevent the flu?
As with other immunizations, the flu vaccine is not 100% effective in preventing illness.
“However, if you do get the vaccine and then get the flu,” Goebel said, “we do have some evidence you’re likely to have a less severe infection.”
For many seniors – especially those with diabetes, asthma and other chronic conditions – getting the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of the onset of acute episodes, hospitalization and death.
Recently, some studies have suggested the flu vaccine may even reduce the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. However, Goebel said there’s not enough evidence to support a direct correlation and that more research is needed.
What are the best vaccines for seniors?
In the past, some vaccines only covered three different strains. This year, all vaccines target all four strains—two of the Type A flu variants and two of the Type B flu strains.
“The main thing is,” explained Goebel, “seniors should get a high-dose or adjuvant flu vaccine such as Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent Vaccine and Fluad Quadrivalent Adjuvanted Vaccine or Flucelvax or Flublok Quadrivalent Recombinant Flu Vaccine (for individuals allergic to eggs).”
Administered only to people over age 65, the Fluzone vaccine contains four times the antigen as standard-dose flu vaccines.
Approved for people over 65 with a lower protective flu response than younger individuals, Fluad includes an ingredient that creates a stronger immune response to vaccination.
Providing protection for individuals with egg allergies, both Flucelvax and Flublok are grown in cell cultures rather than eggs.
Does a person with dementia or their caregiver get any special benefit?
“If you’ve ever sat in the hospital with someone with dementia who becomes more confused because of the unfamiliar location,” Goebel said, “you know how important [it is] to prevent illness and hospitalization. If you can prevent hospitalization with a simple shot that really doesn’t have a lot of side effects, it’s definitely worth it.”
What about the nasal vaccine?
“The nasal vaccine is for people ages 2 to 49; no senior should get it,” Goebel said emphatically.
The live, attenuated vaccine in the nasal spray has proven to be ineffective in the older population and can be detrimental to people who take immunosuppressants.
What are the potential side effects of the flu vaccine?
In rare cases, an individual with an undiagnosed allergy may have a severe allergic reaction to an egg-grown vaccine. However, the most likely side effects of the vaccine are arm soreness or muscle aches at the injection site and a low-grade fever of 99 degrees Fahrenheit that may last for up to two days.
With the high-dose flu vaccines, “There may be a little bit more of a local reaction in the arm,” Goebel noted. “Generally, it doesn’t have any other negative side effects, so I don’t hesitate to give it.”
Is there a chance of bad interactions with other medications or vaccines?
Although it’s important to follow your physician’s guidance, the flu vaccine typically doesn’t result in dangerous interactions. In fact, for years, Goebel has been safely administering the flu vaccine and a pneumonia vaccine during the same office visit.
What are the risks of not getting the vaccine?
Beyond the basic inconvenience (and risk of spreading it), the flu can be life-threatening for people who have health conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, diabetes or dialyzed end-stage kidney disease.
“Those are my most frail patients who have a higher risk,” Goebel said. “If they get any virus or infection, they’re likely to get severe infection and will get hospitalized.”
By far, the age group with the highest rate of hospitalization has been adults 65 and older.
When should seniors receive their flu vaccine?
“September and October are the best times,” Goebel said. “Ideally, everyone should get the vaccine by the end of October because sometimes we get an early outbreak of the flu.”
Unlike COVID-19 and some other vaccines, the seasonal influenza vaccine does not require a booster. So, with one shot, you’re protected generally from the fall through the spring and summer of the next year.
Where can I get vaccinated for the flu?
Flu vaccines are available from doctor’s offices, hospitals, pharmacies and local health departments—usually at no or low cost to the patient.
Goebel noted that because the egg-free vaccines are more expensive, many doctors’ offices may not keep them in stock. However, all the varieties of vaccines are likely to be available at local hospitals, pharmacies or the local public health department.
What should I do if my provider only has the regular vaccine when I arrive?
Many times, older people arrive at the doctor’s office, pharmacy or other appointment only to find out the provider is out of the high-dose vaccine. They’re then left to decide whether to get the standard flu vaccine or make a separate trip in search of the high-dose vaccine.
“If it’s too hard for you or your family member with dementia to go somewhere else to get another shot,” Goebel said, “then get the regular flu shot while you’re there. Because any vaccine is better than no vaccine.”
(However, individuals with egg allergies should always seek out Flublok or Flucelvax.)
Can I get a flu shot for free?
With a little time and research, chances are you can get a flu shot without any out-of-pocket expense. You pay nothing for a flu shot if your doctor or other qualified health care provider accepts Medicare’s assignment for giving the shot.
Even if your insurance, Medicare or Medicaid providers don’t have vaccines available, you may be able to be inoculated at no charge through your local health department.