Dear Savvy Senior: What can you tell me about the flu shots designed for older adults? I got sick last winter after getting a standard flu shot and would like to find out whether the senior-specific flu vaccine is worth getting. — Approaching 80
Dear Approaching: There are actually two different types of flu shots available to people age 65 and older. These FDA-approved vaccines are designed to offer extra protection beyond what a standard flu shot provides, which is important for older adults, who have weaker immune defenses and have a great risk of developing dangerous flu complications.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that during the 2018-2019 flu season, up to 647,000 people were hospitalized and 61,200 died because of the flu — most of whom were seniors.
You also need to be aware that these senior-specific flu shots cannot guarantee that you won’t get the flu this season, but they will lower your risk. And if you do happen to get sick, you probably won’t get as sick as you would without it. Here’s more information on the two vaccines:
Fluzone High-Dose: Approved for U.S. use in 2009, the Fluzone High-Dose is a high-potency vaccine that contains four times the amount of antigen as a regular flu shot does, which creates a stronger immune response for better protection. This vaccine, according to a 2013 clinical trial, was 24% more effective than the regular-dose shot at preventing flu in seniors.
FLUAD: Available in the U.S. since 2016, the FLUAD vaccine contains an added ingredient called adjuvant MF59 that also helps create a stronger immune response. In a 2012 Canadian observational study, FLUAD was 63% more effective than a regular flu shot. The CDC does not recommend one vaccination over the other, and to date, there have been no studies comparing the two vaccines.
You should also know that both the Fluzone High-Dose and FLUAD can cause more of the mild side effects that can occur with a standard-dose flu shot, like pain or tenderness where you got the shot, muscle aches, headache or fatigue. And neither vaccine is recommended for seniors who are allergic to chicken eggs, or those who have had a severe reaction to a flu vaccine in the past.
If you are allergic to eggs, you can ask for a Flucelvax or FluBlok shot. Neither of these vaccines uses chicken eggs in its manufacturing process.
All of these vaccines are covered 100% by Medicare Part B as long as your doctor, health clinic or pharmacy agrees not to charge you more than Medicare pays.
Two other important vaccinations the CDC recommends to seniors, especially this time of year, are the pneumococcal vaccines for pneumonia. Around 1 million Americans are hospitalized with pneumonia each year, and about 50,000 people die from it.
The CDC recommends that all seniors, 65 or older, get two vaccinations: Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23. Both vaccines, which are administered just once at different times, protect against different strains of the bacteria to provide maximum protection.
If you haven’t yet received any pneumococcal vaccine, you should get the Prevnar 13 first, followed by Pneumovax 23 at least one year later. But if you’ve already been vaccinated with Pneumovax 23, wait at least one year before getting the Prevnar 13.
Medicare Part B covers both shots, if they are taken at least one year apart.
To locate a vaccination site that offers any of these shots, visit VaccineFinder.org and type in your location.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.