“With all the talk about COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, it’s easy to forget that there’s another respiratory virus poised to strike.” That’s how this recent story on National Public Radio begins. In her NPR report – as you might suspect – reporter Fran Kritz is talking about a familiar illness that, thanks to all the current COVID news, is easy to overlook: influenza. Her article is a good reminder for everyone, especially seniors, that getting a flu shot should be an annual habit, not just for our own health but for the health of those around us.
A Familiar Winter Nemesis is Returning Soon
By now we all may be a bit tired of vaccine-talk, but experts are still urging people to take flu season seriously and get vaccinated. “We’ve been concerned about vaccine fatigue and that people will be confused about whether or when they need the flu shot, and not very eager to once again roll up their sleeve,” says Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases. “[But] flu is a nasty virus and worth protecting against.”
For seniors, the flu can be incredibly damaging, and too often fatal. Flu vaccines are proven to be safe, and they contribute to overall immunity in the community. But while getting vaccinated for the flu is widely accepted as a wise choice, it’s fair to have questions and concerns. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions relevant to seniors, along with answers from the experts.
Who Should Get the Flu Shot? Do I Really Need One?
While last year set a record-low number for flu cases thanks to heightened COVID restrictions such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and better hygiene precautions, experts warn that reopening of public spaces, especially schools, could lead to a resurgence of the flu. In fact, cases of RSV, a serious respiratory virus in children, are already spiking, which suggests the return of the flu to numbers similar to pre-pandemic years. Add the worrying Delta variant numbers and what you get is a vicious double-whammy.
So, with that in mind, who should get the flu vaccine? According to Dr. Lisa Grohskopf, a medical officer in the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: anyone 6 months or older, unless your doctor has specifically told you not to get one because of a serious reaction. So that probably means you!
When Should I Get Vaccinated?
Doctors agree that there’s no time like the present. As soon as autumn’s cooler temperatures arrive – around October in the U.S. – flu season is close behind. Grohskopf says, “While there’s some concern that immunity might wane before the end of flu season in May if you get the vaccine too early, there’s not enough data to know the optimal time to get the shot.”
Because of this, the CDC recommends getting your vaccination by the end of October, which places you in an ideal window to be immunized before the holiday season. But truthfully, say the experts, getting your shot anytime during flu season is better than nothing.
How Effective Is the Vaccine? Are There Different Kinds to Consider?
While no vaccine is foolproof, the benefit of getting vaccinated for the flu is that it greatly reduces your risk of getting severely ill, being hospitalized, or even dying. Unvaccinated people die from the flu in the thousands every year (except, remarkably, last year), so there’s really no downside to getting the shot.
There are different shots that you can get, but most of them are specialized based on age. Your doctor can recommend the right shot for you. According to NPR’s Kritz, “the CDC recommends that adults 65 and older get vaccinated with one of two souped-up flu shots: either the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine or the FLUAD Quadrivalent vaccine. Both are designed to elicit a more robust immune response. If neither is available, then any flu shot is a good choice.”
Can I Get the Flu Vaccine and the COVID Vaccine Together? What About the Booster?
While the jury was out for a while about how the COVID vaccines would work alongside other vaccines, there’s enough data now for the CDC to say that it’s perfectly fine to get the COVID shot and the flu shot at the same time. Grohskopf says, “The body’s immune response and side effects are generally the same as when getting one vaccine alone.” Because of this, expect to get a shot in each arm if you do decide to get them at the same time. This should alleviate some of the pain and swelling typical of any vaccine.
As for the third booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines, they are not being widely recommended yet, with the exception of certain immunocompromised individuals. But if you do qualify to get one, you should be able to get it on the same day as a flu shot with no problem.
I’m Worried About Going Out – Can I Just Take My Chances?
It’s really not wise to go unprotected, this year especially, says NPR. If you’re concerned about going to the doctor or pharmacy because of the Delta variant, you can always call ahead to make sure that the provider will be masked, or opt for an outdoor clinic instead. Going at a less-busy hour helps, too. But as far as “taking your chances,” why take the risk?
Dr. Bernard Camins, an infectious disease physician at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, points out: “You could get the flu and need care but find hospitals overwhelmed because of COVID, or get the flu and get COVID. And especially if you are not vaccinated against the coronavirus, [you] run the risk of your immune system being overwhelmed by two viruses at the same time.”
While the pandemic is still very active, getting the flu could lead to even more serious illness by lowering your threshold and weakening your lungs. There’s no reason to play such a risky game with your health, and the health of those around you.
Does Getting the Flu Shot and the COVID Vaccine Mean No More Masks?
Don’t put away that mask. It’s essential to keep up the measures put in place to ensure that everyone—both you and your community—stays healthy. Social distancing, wearing your mask, and washing your hands regularly are just the responsible things to do while the pandemic is still present, especially as flu season ramps up.
Kritz covers other topics and questions in her report, such as concerns about pregnancy and allergies. But hopefully we’ve brought you enough information to convince you that getting a flu shot is safe, effective, and good for both you and your community. As we head into the cooler months it’s essential to stay safe, and experts agree: vaccines work.
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(originally reported at www.npr.org)