November 20, 2017

Flu shots for seniors

By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,

What can you tell me about the flu shots made for seniors? I got sick last winter after getting a standard flu shot, and am wandering if the flu vaccine for older adults would provide me better protection this year.

Almost 70

Dear Almost,

There are actually two different flu shots – the Fluzone High Dose and FLUAD – that are designed specifically for people age 65 and older (you only need to get one of them).

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 greater risk of developing dangerous flu complications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the flu puts more than 200,000 people in the hospital each year and kills, on average, about 24,000 – 80 percent of whom are 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, Fluzone High-Dose (see Fluzone.com) 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 percent more effective than the regular-dose shot at preventing flu in seniors.

FLUAD: Available in the U.S. since last year, the FLUAD vaccine (FLUAD.com) contains an added ingredient called adjuvant MF59 that also helps create a stronger immune response. In a 2012 Canadian observational study, FLUAD was 63 percent more effective than a regular flu shot.

The CDC, however, 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 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.

Both vaccines are also covered 100 percent by Medicare Part B, as long as your doctor, health clinic or pharmacy agrees not to charge you more than Medicare pays.

Pneumonia Vaccines

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 is now recommending that all seniors, 65 or older, get two vaccinations –Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23. Both vaccines, which are administered just once at different times, work in different ways to provide maximum protection.

If you haven’t yet received any pneumococcal vaccine, you should get Prevnar 13 first, followed by Pneumovax 23 six to 12 months later. But if you’ve already been vaccinated with Pneumovax 23, wait at least one year before getting 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 Vaccines.gov and type in your ZIP code.

Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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