October 13, 2016

Flu Season and Older Adults: Vaccination and Creating a Layer of Protection around Our Most Vulnerable Patients


By Kerry Krell, MPH

UAMS Arkansas Geriatric Education Collaborative (AGEC)

Fall is here and that means cooler weather, the holidays, and flu season are around the corner. People over the age of 65 are considered high risk for serious complications from the flu, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections that can quickly lead to hospitalization and sometimes death. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and people who have a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy or other immune-suppressing medications, put seniors at an even greater risk for flu and flu-related complications.

Fortunately, the flu vaccine is widely available and is the number one tool that health care providers can use to help keep their senior patients healthy. However, the best protection against flu requires a multi-faceted approach. The CDC offers some tips below to maximize older adults’ protection against the flu.

  • Strongly encourage patients over the age of 65 to get a flu vaccine. There are two vaccines designed specifically for people 65 and older:
    • The high dose vaccine contains 4 times the amount of antigen as the regular flu shot.
    • The adjuvanted flu vaccine is designed to help create a stronger immune response to vaccination. This vaccine is available for the first time in the United States during the 2016-17 flu season.
  • Encourage your older patient’s family and caregivers to also get vaccinated against the flu. By vaccinating the family and caregivers of your patient, you’re helping develop another layer of protection for your older patient. This is particularly important for patients in long-term care facilities. Unfortunately, long-term care personnel continue to have the lowest flu vaccination rates (69.2% compared to 91.2% in hospitals) among all health care personnel.
  • Encourage older patients and their caregivers to practice good health habits. This means covering coughs, washing hands often, and avoiding those who are sick.
  • Encourage older patients to seek medical advice quickly if they develop flu-like symptoms. This includes fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.
  • Advise older patients to get the pneumococcal (pneumonia) vaccine. Flu commonly causes pneumonia and pneumonia is one of the most serious flu-related complications in older adults. This vaccine can protect against pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections.