Is it possible something that takes less than seconds could keep you healthier this season? Well – according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Health Canada, and other public health agencies worldwide – that’s exactly what your annual flu shot offers. And if you’re over the age of 50, they say you need this vaccination. Why?
People older than 50 (especially those over the age of 65) are considered to be at greater risk of complications from influenza, as are those in other high-risk groups like pregnant women, people of all ages with ongoing medical conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, diabetes or asthma, and health care workers. A flu vaccine is considered the best and most effective way to protect yourself -- and those with whom you come into contact -- from influenza.
What is influenza? Influenza, or “flu” for short, is a highly-contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that are spread through the air when someone sneezes or coughs, or by contact with something that the virus is on, like a door handle or phone. The flu virus can survive for a number of hours in the open air, according to the National Institute on Aging.
While it’s easy to mistake a milder cold for the flu, influenza's trademark symptoms include fever, headache, cough, and severe aches and pains. Extreme fatigue, along with general tiredness lasting up to 3 weeks, is also common. Complications like bronchitis and pneumonia can lead to hospitalizations, or even death.
What is the flu vaccine? Each year a new flu vaccine or shot is created, based on the recommendations of epidemiologists and other disease experts from the CDC, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and others. Data from more than 100 influenza laboratories, in more than 100 countries, are analyzed.
Each spring, the international team determines the top three viruses most likely to cause influenza in the upcoming fall and winter flu season. Sometimes the vaccine includes the same virus from a previous year; other times the vaccine is designed to fight three brand new viruses.
The effectiveness of the flu shot in any given year will depend on whether the three viruses chosen for the vaccine match the most prevalent forms that take hold in a population, as well as the age and overall health of the people who get the shot. If an older person has a weak immune system, their defense against the viruses in the vaccine will not be as strong, either.
Flu threat to older adults: Older people experience more flu-related complications than do younger, healthy adults. The CDC estimates that in the United States, people over the age of 65 account for the vast majority – up to 90% - of deaths due to flu. More than half (60%) of hospitalizations for influenza are of patients in the same age group.
While many people of every age do recover fully from the flu, the disease is particularly dangerous for someone already managing a chronic illness. For example, the flu might lead to more asthma attacks, may cause difficulty breathing in someone with chronic lung disease, or a worsening of a heart condition like congestive heart failure.
The majority of serious cases happen in adults over the age of 65, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend a flu shot for anyone older than 50, or for anyone looking after a person in this age group.
When does the flu hit?: The majority of influenza cases occur between November and April, with incidence peaking in January or February.
The flu shot and immunity: Once you’ve had a flu shot, it takes about two weeks for it to become fully effective. A yearly flu vaccine is strongly recommended because immunity to the viruses subsides over time, and because new vaccine viruses may be selected to be part of each yearly flu shot.
Fluzone High-Dose: This super-charged flu vaccine contains four times the antigen or vaccine dose of a regular flu shot, and is available to people over the age of 65. The higher dose is meant to compensate for the diminished immunity response to a vaccine, and the shorter duration of immunity after a vaccine, that often accompany advancing age.
In the United States, many insurance companies cover the cost of the flu shot. In Canada, provinces and territories determine whether the vaccine will be offered free of charge for their residents.
- In the US: Find a flu vaccine in your area
- In Canada: Find more flu information for your region
- A full review of influenza from our Cold & Flu Guide, Kristina Duda
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Public Information Sheet. Accessed December 3, 2012.
Flu – Get the Shot. US NIH National Institute on Aging Public Information Sheet. Accessed December 3, 2012.
Flu Symptoms & Severity. NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Public Information Sheet. Accessed December 4, 2012.
Seniors and the Flu Shot. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Public Information Sheet. Accessed December 3, 2012.