Flu can have dangerous domino effect on older adults

Shelly Haberman
Rick Patton

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 about 70 percent and 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older and between 54 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.

At 56 years of age, Rick Patton, Fond du Lac County Veterans Services director, understands the risks associated with age and influenza. That’s why he annually receives his influenza vaccination - for his benefit as someone who has asthma, and those he serves.

“When I got the flu back in January, had I not gotten the flu shot earlier, I most likely would have been hospitalized for a while due to asthma complications,” Patton says. “That is my main motivation to get a flu shot every year.”

And, in his role, Patton says it’s the right thing to go for his clients. “I spend a lot of time with veterans and a vulnerable population,” Patton explains. “Having the flu shot is important so I don’t infect those I come in contact with. I know some individuals are hesitant to get the flu shot because they think they will get the flu.”

The vaccine cannot cause a flu illness. The vaccine either has a killed (inactivated) form of the virus that is not infectious or it is made with proteins from a flu vaccine virus that is attenuated, or “weakened,” and therefore cannot cause the flu.  

“After getting the flu shot, some people can experience a mild fever, tiredness or feel a little achy,” says Kim Mueller, Fond du Lac County health officer. “This is your body building an immune response to the vaccine and is called an immune response. When you come in contact with the virus later in the season, your body will recognize the virus and be able to fight against it.”

Patton is also familiar with others who are concerned they might still get the flu even after being vaccinated. While that is true - unfortunately you may be exposed to a flu virus shortly before getting vaccinated, or because you may be exposed to a type of flu that is not included in the seasonal flu vaccine - the vaccine is not foolproof, but it is the best way to protect against flu infection.

“Last year, I was out a few days with the flu, and providers mentioned that having the shot minimized the symptoms, length and severity of the flu. It would have been worse had I not received the immunization.”

Flu vaccination is especially important for people 65 years and older because they are at high risk of developing serious complications from flu. Older adults can also benefit from a high dose flu vaccine, which contains four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot. It is associated with a stronger immune response following vaccination (higher antibody production). The high dose vaccine has been approved for use in the United States since 2009.

“Flu vaccines are updated each season as needed to keep up with changing viruses,” according to Kandipati Sreenivasarao, DO, (also known as Rao), Fond du Lac Regional Clinic North Fond du Lac family medicine physician. “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. Immunity from vaccination sets in after about two weeks.”

Flu vaccination has been shown to reduce flu illnesses and more serious flu outcomes that can result in hospitalization or even death in older people.

“Older adults with weaker immune systems often have a lower protective immune response after flu vaccination compared to younger, healthier people,” says Dr. Sreenivasarao. “This can make them more susceptible to the flu. Although immune responses may be lower in the elderly, vaccine effectiveness has been similar in most flu seasons among older adults and those with chronic health conditions compared to younger, healthy adults.

“Despite the fact that older adults have weaker immune responses to flu vaccines, there are many reasons why people in that age group should be vaccinated each year,” Dr. Sreenivasarao adds.

In addition to getting the flu shot, people 65 years and older should take the same everyday preventive actions the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recommends of everyone, including covering coughs, washing hands often, and avoiding people who are sick.

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