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Yes, You Really Do Need a Flu Shot

You grow more vulnerable to the virus with age and, unvaccinated, pose a risk to seniors and infants

posted by Gary Drevitch, September 5, 2012 More by this author

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Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels.


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Flu shot season has begun — and if that's news you typically ignore, it's time you started paying attention.

"The risk of complications from influenza increase with age," says Dr. Richard Birkel, senior vice president for healthy aging at the National Council of Aging (NCOA). Our immune system's ability to fight illness decreases as we get older, so even healthy adults face greater risk each year. And while young children and people over 65 remain the most vulnerable to flu, the federal Centers for Disease Control and NCOA recommend that all Americans, six months and up, get vaccinated every year.

(MORE: Caregivers Need Flu Shots, Too)

You need the shot not only to protect yourself, Birkel says, but also to protect others from the flu. "If you’re in your 50s, it’s critical that you get it — if you don’t, you become someone who can pass the flu on to a senior in the family," he explains. "We recommend that everyone in a family get immunized at the same time. It’s the best way to reduce the overall risk for everyone."

This Year, No Excuses, Whatever Your Age

If you're concerned about the vaccine shortages reported in previous years, relax. "There is absolutely no shortage this year," Birkel says. "There’s plenty of vaccine around."

Here are some other facts you need to know:

It's not too early. In fact, September is the ideal time to get vaccinated. "The efficacy peaks in about two months," Birkel points out, "and you’ll get protection through the peak winter season."

A flu shot works. The vaccine is reformulated each year to target the specific strains of flu being detected worldwide by public health monitors. "The vaccine seems to be on target this year," Birkel says, citing encouraging data on its effectiveness from the southern hemisphere, which is coming out of its flu season now. The current vaccine targets two flu strains that were not part of last year's shot, along with H1N1, or swine flu.

It's easy to get. Flu shots may be available at your workplace or at local senior centers. Plus, retail pharmacies in at least 28 states can provide the shot without a prescription or copayment, Birkel says. The American Lung Association's Flu Vaccine Finder can help you track down the nearest locations.

Hate shots? No problem. The flu vaccine is also available as a nasal spray — and through a new, tiny needle that, Birkel says, "feels like a mosquito bite." (The traditional shot, however, is used on anyone over 65.)

(MORE: A Generation Comes Together — for Hepatitis C Tests)

You'll help the babies in your life. Children under six months of age cannot be inoculated. "They remain unprotected and vulnerable," Birkel says, "and that’s one reason why other members of the family should get vaccinated. It’s your best way to protect an infant." Others at higher risk include young children, pregnant women and anyone with a chronic health condition, such as heart disease and diabetes.

For Seniors, an Essential

If you're over 65, or are the caregiver for someone that age or older, the shot is crucial. Annually, about 90 percent of flu-related deaths and 60 percent of flu-related hospitalizations occur in people 65+. The number of deaths in the U.S. from the flu can vary widely each year, depending on the season's active strains and the efficacy and use of the vaccine. But in recent years the annual death toll has ranged from a low of 3,000 to a high of 33,000. There were about 250,000 flu-related hospitalizations last season.

You should also be aware that the flu shot now comes in a higher dose designed to compensate for the decline of older adults' immune systems. The more potent vaccine triggers the body to produce more antibodies against the flu virus than the traditional dose. Ask your doctor if the high-dose shot is right for you or the senior(s) in your life. Both versions are free for everyone covered by Medicare.