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What You Should Know and Do this Flu Season If You Are 65 Years and Older

It has been recognized for many years that people 65 years and older are at greater risk of serious complications from the flu compared with young, healthy adults because human immune defenses become weaker with age. While flu seasons can vary in severity, during most seasons, people 65 years and older bear the greatest burden of severe flu disease. In recent years, for example, it’s estimated that between 80 percent and 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older and between 50 percent and 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people in that age group. So influenza is often quite serious for people 65 and older.

Actions To Take This Flu Season:

  1. Get Your Flu Shot
    The best way to prevent the flu is with a flu vaccine. CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a seasonal flu vaccine each year soon after it becomes available, and by October if possible. Vaccination is especially important for people 65 years and older because they are at high risk for complications from flu. Flu vaccines are often updated to keep up with changing viruses and also immunity wanes over a year so annual vaccination is needed to ensure the best possible protection against influenza.

    A flu vaccine protects against the flu viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. (See Vaccine Virus Selection for this season’s exact vaccine composition.) The 2015-2016 vaccine has been updated from last season’s vaccine to better match circulating viruses. Immunity from vaccination sets in after about two weeks.

    People 65 years and older have two flu shots available to choose from - a regular dose flu vaccine and a newer flu vaccine designed specifically for people 65 and older with a higher dose. (The nasal spray vaccine is not approved for use in people older than 49 years.) The “high dose vaccine” contains 4 times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot and is associated with a stronger immune response following vaccination (higher antibody production). Preliminary studies suggest this may translate into greater protection against flu disease. For example, one recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the high-dose vaccine was 24.2% more effective in preventing flu in adults 65 years and older relative to a standard-dose flu vaccine. (The confidence interval for this result was 9.7% to 36.5%). At this time, CDC and its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices have not expressed a preference for either vaccine for people 65 and older, however, there are ongoing studies looking into this issue and new findings will be considered in ACIP's future policy deliberations.
  2. Practice good health habits including covering coughs, washing hands often, and avoiding people who are sick.
  3. Seek medical advice quickly if you develop flu symptoms to see whether you might need medical evaluation or treatment with antiviral drugs. It's very important that antiviral drugs be used early to treat flu in people who are very sick with flu (for example, people who are in the hospital), and people who are sick with flu and have a greater chance of getting serious flu complications, like people 65 and older (see box for full list of high risk persons/conditions).

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea. People may be infected with the flu and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.

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