Flu Season: Time to Get Vaccinated

by Peter Friessen

The influenza season can be a dangerous time for everyone, but especially for young children and seniors. Both age groups have weaker immune systems that have a harder time fighting off disease and infection, though both age groups also have many options for staying healthy through the winter.

A flu vaccine is recommended every year for everyone, especially those at either end of the age spectrum. It is the first and most useful step to preventing sickness, according to Susan Reeser, nurse consultant for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services’ immunization program.

Reeser said seniors’ immune systems don’t build antibodies as well, giving them a higher chance of getting sick.

“The best preventative is to get your flu vaccine annually,” Reeser said. “Anybody 65 years or older, their immune system isn’t as robust as when they were younger, especially if they have underlying health conditions.” The best time to get vaccinated is October, Reeser said. It gives the body enough time to build up antibodies and isn’t too early, risking antibodies fading later in the season.

So what can older Montanans do to supplement the flu vaccine and keep from getting sick when winter
rolls around?

Tamalee St. James, community and family health services director for Riverstone Health in Billings,
said the standard precautions are vital.

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Make sure others around you are vaccinated.

The first three go a long way to preventing the spread of disease. But St. James said that seniors especially should take notice of the fourth recommendation.

Family members who visit, take care of or spend time with their loved ones are at risk of spreading
the flu if they haven’t been vaccinated. Make sure that kids, grandkids, in-home caretakers and
anyone else who is frequently around seniors is vaccinated.

Hand sanitizer can be a good tool, St. James said, though it doesn’t replace hand washing. If used as a supplement to other good flu prevention habits, sanitizer can be helpful, though she recommended using a high-alcohol-content product that kills germs more effectively.

Flu shots take about two weeks to fully build immunity in a person’s system, St. James said, adding that the live virus vaccine is a myth. It isn’t possible to get sick from a flu shot.

The flu vaccine is the only yearly vaccine recommended for seniors, but there are a few one-time shots
that are suggested.

After turning 50, a tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine and the
“shingles shot” are recommended. After turning 65, the Prevenar and pneumonia shots are recommended.

An optional vaccine that St. James highly recommends for seniors who enjoy traveling or eating out is the Hepatitis A shot.

“If someone who has Hepatitis A prepares food, you can get the virus,” St. James said.

Two shots are administered, an initial shot followed a few months later by a booster shot. The vaccine isn’t covered by Medicare and can be quite expensive, St. James said.

Reeser said the Hepatitis A vaccine is now being recommended for young children as well, and also recommended the shot for travelers.

If seniors do get the flu, it’s important to get antivirals from a doctor soon after symptoms appear, especially for those 65 and older, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control’s website.

“Prompt treatment can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay,”” the website said.

Antivirals work best within 48 hours of getting sick, though they’re beneficial at any point in the illness.

Three antivirals are recommended by the CDC this season: Oseltamivir, Zanamivir and Peramivir.

The most important tool to dealing with all of this, Reeser said, is for seniors to talk with their doctor. Every piece of advice or CDC recommendation can vary from person to person depending on, especially in older age groups, just about anything.

Underlying health conditions can affect different vaccines or medications and are an important
part of talking with a doctor.

Reeser said flu season is a time to be aware of additional health concerns, as the flu combined with
other conditions can be even more damaging.

“You just won’t have the energy to fight the disease,” she said.

A Variety of Vaccines Available

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control host a massive website devoted to telling a person anything they want to know about the flu season. With a few helpful tips about this year’s vaccines, you can do your best to prevent getting sick.

The flu season generally lasts from October to May, with peaks falling from December to February. Because the peak changes from year to year, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated early, by the end of October.

Older immune systems may not create antibodies as long and their antibody levels may drop more quickly than younger immune systems, but getting a shot in October should protect seniors through the entire season.

This year, a few different vaccines are available. Trivalent and quadrivalent carry either three or four strains of the flu, respectively. The field is moving toward using quadrivalent vaccines, said Susan Reeser, nurse consultant for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services’ immunization program, and many clinics should carry them.

The vaccines are developed by medical scientists who track every season’s flu strains around the globe and create a shot with strains of the most common two “A” viruses an one or two “B” viruses.

The letters are used to denote the time the strains appear. “A” viruses generally appear earlier
in the season, while “B” viruses pop up later. There is a high-dose version of the flu shot available for people ages 65 and up, but it isn’t available everywhere.

Tamalee St. James, the community and family health services director for Riverstone Health in Billings, said the high-dose vaccine isn’t covered by Medicare and costs much more than the regular vaccine.

It’s only been out for a couple of years and has been tested and approved by the Advisory Committee
on Immunization Practices for those over 65 only, Reeser said.

“It does really work well for seniors,” she said. “It has four times as many antigens.”
– Peter Friesen

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