Much like the annual onslaught of Medicare supplement plan ads, seniors are likewise besieged at this time of year by reminders to get to the doctor or pharmacist for inoculations against everything from the flu to COVID.
But sometimes the barrage of helpful hints can be more perplexing than having no information at all — particularly during a season like this one, when a variety of potentially serious respiratory ailments seems to be converging.
To help sort it all out, we checked in with Dr. Erica Kaufman West, medical director of Infectious Diseases at Franciscan Physician Network. Here are her recommendations for seniors scheduling their inoculation regimen.
The big shots
“Yearly influenza and COVID-19 bivalent boosters are at the top of the list at this time of year,” Kaufman West says. She also notes that there is a new pneumonia vaccine out — PCV-20 (PREVNAR20 is the brand name) — that covers various strains of the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae, the No. 1 cause of bacterial pneumonias.
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“Prior to this, seniors and others who met certain criteria had to get two vaccines (PREVNAR13 and Pneumovax23) six to 12 months apart. Now they can just get one,” she explains. “If they’ve already gotten their pneumococcal series, they don’t need the new PCV20. If they’ve gotten one or the other, they can talk with their physician about how best to finish the series. But if they haven’t gotten any, a single PCV20 shot should be all they need.”
Heavy-duty shot at the flu
With many physicians recommending a high-dose influenza vaccine for seniors 65 and older this year (the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine boasts four times the antigen of the “regular” influenza vaccine), Kaufman West says it’s definitely something to consider coming off of several quiet years on the flu front.
“We know that as people age, their immune systems weaken,” she explains. “The high-dose vaccine is intended to get a higher antibody and immune response than the traditional vaccine. And because we haven’t really been exposed to influenza since 2019, with COVID-19 taking up most of the respiratory season the last few years, people’s natural immunity to it has fallen. That’s why it’s even more important for seniors to have that higher antibody level this year.”
With all of the inoculation recommendations being tossed around this year, one common question many seniors may have is how the latest COVID booster, for example, might interact (if at all) with their other shots. Is it safe to get several of these shots all at once, or is it better to space them out?
Other than some folks trying to avoid having two sore arms (in which case they might want to wait a week between them), Kaufman West says it’s generally safe for most people to get several shots at one appointment (though anyone on immunosuppressive medication, such as chemotherapy or long-term steroids, should discuss appropriate timing with their physician). But it all depends on the individual.
“Safety means different things to different people,” she notes. “It’s medically safe to get more than one vaccine at once, but some people may find the side effects a little more difficult to manage if they get more than one. Alternatively, some may decide that two days of side effects is better than spacing things out and having more days of feeling fatigued and sore.”
Kaufman West also says some vaccines have their own set schedules. For people older than 50, for example, Shingrix is the preferred shingles vaccine, and it’s a two-dose series spaced out over two to six months.
“It is very immunogenic, and most people have a sore arm, fevers, aches – similar to the COVID-19 vaccine,” she notes. “Many of my patients who have had Shingrix say it’s the vaccine with the most side effects. However, it’s well worth the temporary discomfort since it prevents 90% of shingles outbreaks and resulting post-herpetic neuralgia, which is the chronic pain that some people get even after their shingles episode has ended.”