You probably know that the flu vaccine is a little different each year. Manufacturers alter it to make it as close a “match” to the currently circulating viruses as possible. There are some other changes you should be aware of for the 2016 flu season, too. But the most important thing to know, experts say, is: Get the flu shot, even if you think you don’t need it.
“The more people that get the vaccine, the better it is for everybody — and in the process, you protect yourself,” said Dr. Jesse T. Jacob, associate professor of medicine at Emory University and hospital epidemiologist at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta.
The flu can be a very serious illness, especially for those 65 and over and for children. About 90 percent of flu-related deaths occur in those 65 and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Over three decades between 1976-1977 to 2006-2007, the flu and associated illnesses like pneumonia killed between a low of 3,000 and a high of 49,000 people per season, according to the CDC. Exact numbers are not known, because states are not required to report influenza deaths in adults.
Older adults are most likely to get the flu and suffer complications from the virus, said Jacob. That’s true even if they’re immunized.
I think the biggest [misconception] is, ‘I got the flu shot and it made me sick.' You can't get flu from the flu vaccine.
— Dr. Jesse T. Jacob, Emory University
“The vaccine’s effectiveness may not be as good in folks over the age of 65,” he said, “partly because just naturally over time, your immune system isn’t as good.” Older adults also tend to have more medical problems, and are often more frail, than younger people, he said.
But studies have shown that those who have been immunized are less likely to become seriously ill.
What to Keep in Mind This Year
Here are nine things you need to know about this year’s flu season, especially if you are 65 or older:
- The Fluzone high-dose vaccine is still available for those 65 and up. It contains four times the amount of antigen, the substance that prompts an immune response, as a regular flu shot. “The trade-off with this vaccine is that it is a trivalent [meaning it fights three strains of the flu], and many of our regular vaccines have four strains in them,” said Dr. Lisa Winston, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and the hospital epidemiologist at the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.
- There is a new vaccine option for people 65 and older. It is an adjuvanted shot called Fluad. An adjuvant is a substance added to increase the immune response. The Fluad shot is also a trivalent. The Fluad and Fluzone high-dose shots may also cause a greater local reaction, such as a sore arm, Winston said.
- The CDC’s advisory committee on immunization practices has said that “at this point there aren’t clinical data that are compelling enough for the CDC to recommend a particular vaccine for those 65 and older,” Winston said. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.
- The nasal spray vaccine is not recommended for anyone this year. Its effectiveness does not hold up to that of the shot, the CDC said. Previously, it was an option for those ages 2 to 49.
- People 65 and older should not get the intradermal flu shot or the jet injector vaccine.
- If you have not yet gotten your flu shot for the year, now is the time. For best protection, everyone should get the shot by the end of October, according to the CDC. But if you don’t make it by then, it is still worthwhile to get vaccinated — even as late as January. The flu virus circulates throughout the winter season.
Early indications are that the strains doctors are seeing in people this season look like they’re the ones in the vaccine, which is good news, said Winston. “So far, based on the few strains that have been typed, there’s not great concern that we’re going to have a mismatch like we did a couple years ago. But it’s only October. Influenza is just sporadic at this point, so it’s too early to know,” he added.
- There is no longer any need for people with egg allergies to avoid the flu shot. Those who have experienced only hives from eggs need not be observed for 30 minutes following a flu shot, as was previously recommended. People who have had a more severe reaction to eggs should get the flu shot, but be observed in a medical setting.
- Under the Affordable Care Act, many insurers are required to provide preventive services like the flu shot at no cost to you. The shots are free with Medicare and Medicaid. If you have no insurance, a flu shot at a chain store will cost between about $25 (for the standard shot) to $65 (for the shots recommended for those 65 and up).
Flu Shot Views: True or False?
Jacob says he hears a lot of misconceptions about the flu and the flu vaccine.
“I think the biggest one is, ‘I got the flu shot and it made me sick,’” he said.
“The flu vaccines that are being recommended now are all shots. They’re all dead flu vaccine. You can’t get flu from the flu vaccine,” noted Jacob. Even the nasal mist, which was a live attenuated vaccine, could not give you the flu, he said.
The reason people think the vaccine causes them to become sick? They only decide to get the shot when everyone else around them is getting ill.
“Then they run out and get the flu shot. It takes about two weeks for your immune system to really kick in and generate an immune response. So in that when everyone else around you is sick, you can certainly get sick,” Jacob said.
In addition, people often say they have “the flu” when it’s not actually the influenza virus, which is a specific illness. It’s not “stomach flu” and it’s not just a bad cold, he said.
“All of those can make you terrible and lousy, but most of them don’t make you quite as sick as influenza can,” Jacob said.
Bottom line: Don’t risk letting yourself get sick, and don’t be the source of an illness for someone else. Get vaccinated.
To find out which shots are available in your area, go to Vaccine Finder and type in your location.