In News on Friday 15th Apr, 2022

Ageing and influenza risk: how to protect yourself this winter

Apr 15, 2022
Winter is almost here so it’s time to put your health first and protect yourself, and your loved ones, against the flu. Image source: Getty

Influenza, also known as the flu, can affect anyone. Flu symptoms can range from mild to severe and even life-threatening, but for older people the risk of flu-related complications and hospitalisations can be very high.

This is because as we age, our immune system becomes less effective at fighting infections and can be less responsive to vaccinations, which makes us more vulnerable to viruses such as the flu.

Initial symptoms of the flu include fever, muscle aches and cough, but these can quickly develop into something more serious, such as pneumonia.

It is important to be prepared for the flu season and consider the protection best suited to you. This may include flu vaccines that are available for people over 60 both on the private market and those available at no cost via the National Immunisation Program.

Ageing and immunity

Compared to healthy young adults, people in later life are at much higher risk of being hospitalised by the flu and are more susceptible to flu-related complications, including pneumonia and heart attack.

This is due to a natural phenomenon that occurs as our immune system ages, known as immunosenescence. When this natural decline occurs, the immune system cannot protect the body as effectively as it once did from pathogens which increases vulnerability to infectious disease and complications.

The standard flu shot also tends to be less effective in this age group as older adults can have a reduced antibody response to the vaccine.

“This means older people may not respond as well to standard influenza vaccines as healthy young adults,” explains Brisbane-based GP, Dr Sarah Chu.

Fortunately, there are specific flu vaccines that are suited to older adults. These enable older adults to generate an adequate amount of antibodies to help protect against the flu.

“Older adults may also have medical conditions or take medication that weakens their immune system, highlighting the need for flu vaccines to be tailored to the needs of individuals,” adds Dr Chu.

Why over 60s are considered ‘at risk’

“It is estimated that between 2016 and 2019, approximately 56 per cent of influenza hospitalisations occurred in Australians aged 60 and above,” explains Dr Chu.

Last year only 26% of adults aged 64 years and under received a flu vaccine compared to 73% of Australians aged 65 and over.

It also takes a longer time for older adults to recover from the flu, and extended periods of hospitalisation and inactivity can greatly impact daily life.

“Getting sick with influenza may mean never recovering to your previous level of function or being able to do the things you love,” warns Dr Chu.

Even if you are not affected by serious complications of the flu, you may still experience fevers and chills, muscle and joint pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

“Influenza is unpredictable because the circulating viruses change every year.

Annual vaccination remains the simplest and best protection against contracting influenza, spreading influenza, and preventing disease-related complications, hospitalisation, and death,” Dr Chu explains.

How to protect yourself

Vaccination is an effective way to lower your chances of becoming seriously ill or being hospitalised due to the flu.

But getting the jab is not only for your protection. People who get a flu shot also help protect those around them, such as newborns and infants who might be too young to receive their own flu shot.

The last two years have been a reminder of the importance of maintaining good hygiene and how prevention is the best protection.

“Hygiene measures such as handwashing, hand sanitiser use, cough etiquette, cleaning, the wearing of masks, and avoiding contact with sick people are additional ways to protect against the flu,” says Dr Chu.

“However, effective vaccination remains our best protection against influenza and its complications.”

Dr Chu recommends you speak to a GP or pharmacist to understand the available vaccine options to prevent influenza this season. The Federal Government is offering free flu vaccination for all Australian over the age of 65. If you are under 65, check your private health insurance policy for coverage of flu vaccine costs.

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IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

Protecting yourself against flu in 2022

Experts fear this flu season may be more severe than the last two years. If you are over 60 and catch the flu, you’re at higher risk of serious complications or requiring hospital care. Find out more about flu prevention and the different vaccine choices available for people aged 60 plus.

Learn more

Will you be getting the flu vaccine this year? Did you know that influenza can impact you differently as you age?

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