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Two For You: Healthy Aging Means Getting Both Your COVID and Flu Vaccines

Jerry Reves, M.D.
November 01, 2023
Care team member administering vaccine shot

It’s that time of year again — flu season — and it comes with a lingering COVID presence. These are two very different viruses that can cause severe health problems, including death.

Seasonal influenza and COVID are especially risky for people over 65, which is the primary audience of this column, Healthy Aging. So, if we want to try to remain healthy in this seasonally challenging time, what should we do? The answer is to get vaccinated against influenza and COVID. Although the vaccines may not prevent the disease, it has been proven that they promote an immune response that tends to lessen the severity of the illness.

2023-2024 Flu Season Recommendations

Why do those of us over 65 especially need to get vaccinated? The North American influenza season runs from fall to early spring. It typically peaks in February. Although a completely accurate estimate of the severity of the flu season never happens, experts do make predictions.

Every year in the United States, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and tens of thousands die from the flu. The CDC reports that in recent years between 70 and 85% of seasonal flu deaths have occurred in people over 65. Some predictions warn of an active flu season this year.

If flu or the latest COVID variant appears, all the behaviors we learned with COVID, such as masking, social distancing, thorough hand washing and reduced travel, are effective measures to reduce transmission. It turns out that even we older folks get the flu from our grandchildren and other younger people who are exposed at school and work. Thus, the CDC and others strongly recommend that everyone, especially older Americans, get this year’s flu vaccine by the end of October. The good news is that a reformulated COVID vaccine is also available, and the best advice is to get both vaccines now.

The Flu Shot

The flu vaccine is known to reduce the seriousness of the seasonal flu, and this is why it is recommended each year, particularly for elderly people who are more vulnerable to severe flu symptoms and even death. For those of us over 65, the higher dose and adjuvanted flu vaccines are recommended over the regular flu shot. Be sure to ask for the high-dose quadrivalent or adjuvanted vaccine formulated for the elderly.

This year’s vaccines have been updated with the flu variant predicted for this year. The shots may cause mild side effects in some people, such as injection site soreness, swelling, redness, fever, chills, headache and body aches. Most people, however, have no adverse reaction.

The vaccines for the elderly may produce more temporary side effects than the standard vaccine, but the transient inconvenience is worth the longer-term protection. The flu vaccine is safe and effective, depending on the strain of the year and the vaccine of the year. It is recommended that everyone get the flu vaccine unless they have a medical reason not to do so, as explained to them by their physician. If you are over 65 or if you have a chronic medical condition like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc., getting the influenza vaccine is important.

The COVID Booster Approved

The FDA-approved and CDC-recommended COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The Novavax COVID-19 vaccine is a protein subunit vaccine. The mRNA vaccines induce our immune system to make antibodies to combat the COVID virus, and the subunit vaccine has a “spike” protein from the virus that makes the body respond to COVID viruses with a similar spike. Both types of vaccine are safe and effective in preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19 now prevalent in the world.

If you have never been vaccinated for COVID, now is the time to have your physician prescribe the best vaccine and immunization schedule. If you have been vaccinated, a single-shot booster is to be given six months or more after vaccination or booster. If you have just had COVID, you can wait three months before getting the booster.

The side effects for the COVID booster are redness, soreness or swelling at the injection site, fatigue, headache, joint pain, or chills and lymph node swelling under the arm. The booster is approved for use in individuals 65 and older, people 18-64 at high risk of severe COVID disease, health care workers, teachers, day-care workers, grocery workers and people in various institutions of communal living, such as prisons, nursing homes, etc.

Simultaneous Vaccination

In a change from previous guidance, the CDC recommends that people receive the flu and COVID booster vaccines at the same time. This policy should increase the number of people getting both vaccines by combining the visits.

The recommendation is to get the injections at least one inch apart and preferably one in each arm. Not all flu vaccines are the same, and those known to have more side effects because of something called adjuvant additives should be given in a separate arm because of the increased chance of some local side effects. Getting both shots at the same time is not considered to be more dangerous or to diminish the effectiveness of the intended immune response of either vaccine.

The Bottom Line

Now is the time to get vaccinated with the flu and the COVID booster. Actually, both shots are boosters!

Seniors should get the vaccines for two reasons

  1. One, as we age, our immune system (like many of our systems) no longer works as well as it used to, and the vaccine gives our immune system a boost.
  2. Second, the older we are, the more threatening these viruses are because many of us may already have some chronic disease that makes us susceptible to complications from the viral illness.

The vaccines are available at most pharmacies. You can also visit a website that, if you put in your ZIP code, tells you where you can get your shot.