Pharmacies and clinics around the country are beginning their annual push to convince Americans to get their yearly flu vaccination.

Vaccine development involves guesswork

Whether it's a jab in the arm or a spray in the nose, the process of developing a flu vaccine involves a lot of guesswork, which means individual results may vary.

The influenza virus comes in many forms and is constantly evolving, hence the recommendation for people to receive regular re-vaccinations. Each year, a new version of the serum is released, specifically targeted towards preventing the sub-strains of the virus experts predict will be the most prevalent.

The traditional flu shot or spray option offers protection against manifestations of the three most common strains (H1N1, H3N2, and a Type B version). In January and February, scientists identify the sub-strains they feel will be most common in the fall and begin the vaccine making process, which takes several months to complete.

Because the flu virus evolves at such a rapid rate, different strains may pop up during the intervening months, degrading the ability to the in-progress vaccination to prevent the disease. Thus, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine often changes from year to year.

A case for prevention

Despite the inherent variability of the flu vaccine's effectiveness, it is on the list of recommended elderly vaccines. According to the CDC, the average individual can reduce their risk of coming down with the flu by about 60 percent, just by getting vaccinated.

There are indeed several compelling reasons for caregivers and their elderly loved ones to take advantage of this preventive measure:

  • Aging adults have a higher infection risk: People over age 65 are more likely to be hit harder by the flu than their younger counterparts. In 2013, over half of those hospitalized for the flu were 65 or older, and the vast majority of people who die from flu complications are in this cohort. As an individual ages, the ability of their immune system to mount a defense against infection diminishes. Adding chronic illness into the equation further complicates the process. While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledge that the traditional flu shot may be less effective in the elderly, they stand by their recommendation for a yearly vaccination. A special version of the vaccine--containing four times the amount of inactive flu virus—has been developed to accommodate the depressed immune systems of aging adults. Research has shown that this high dose flu vaccine is more effective in elders.
  • Vaccines can help those who do contract the flu: Some individuals will still get the flu, even if they've taken the suggested preventive measures. But those who contract the illness after receiving the vaccine tend to have less-severe symptoms, says the CDC. For aging adults who do get the flu, this may make the difference in avoiding a risky (and costly) hospital stay. In 2013, over half of those hospitalized for the flu were age 65 and older.
  • Preventing the flu is good for overall health: The flu can do more than cause a few days of malaise—it can have a distinctly negative impact on an individual's overall health. The combination of chronic health conditions and the flu can be deadly. Inflammation caused by the immune system's response to the virus may worsen preexisting respiratory and heart issues. Also, those with diabetes can find their glucose levels harder to manage as a result of an influenza infection.
  • Helping others stay healthy: This point is particularly geared towards caregivers of the elderly. One way to help your loved one steer clear of the flu is by taking steps to make sure you don't contract the illness yourself. The close physical contact that caregiving often requires makes it easy for the influenza virus to pass from caregiver to loved one.

For those over 65, Medicare Part B offers annual coverage of a flu vaccine. Many private health insurers also cover the cost of the vaccine for those who do not yet qualify for Medicare.

Different versions of the flu vaccine are right for different people, depending on their age and health concerns. A physician can recommend which version of flu vaccine would be best for you and for your elderly loved one.