(Version published in the Hamilton Spectator: January 23, 2024)
Rose Yee and Andra Linetski
As we move further into what is proving to be an active respiratory season, here is a reminder that it is important to stay up-to-date with vaccinations for optimal protection from severe illness and complications. This is especially true for older adults, whose immune systems may not always be able to fight off infections. Fortunately, there are new and updated vaccines that help protect older adults.
COVID is still here and there are different viral strains or variants that cause it. Updated vaccines are available to target circulating strains. Canadian guidelines recommend that you wait at least three to six months from your last COVID vaccination or infection before getting the updated vaccine.
Influenza (the flu) is another virus that can make seniors very sick. It spreads easily and can infect the nose, throat, and lungs. Vaccination against the flu is important this winter given the potential for the co-circulation of other respiratory diseases, such as COVID. There are four flu vaccines offered with two vaccines specifically targeting older adults to provide better protection. It takes approximately two weeks for the body to develop an immune response after receiving the vaccine.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is another common and contagious respiratory virus that infects the nose, throat, and lungs. In most individuals, RSV causes mild symptoms (similar to the common cold); however, older individuals are at a higher risk of developing complications that may require hospitalization.
The RSV vaccine has been approved for use in individuals 60 years and older. The vaccine is effective at reducing the likelihood of getting RSV and the severity of symptoms. In Ontario, the vaccine is free-of charge to individuals 60 years or older who live in long-term care homes or some retirement homes. Other individuals may qualify to receive the RSV vaccine by paying out-of-pocket (with a prescription from their physician).
Pneumococcal vaccines protect against bacterial infections that commonly lead to community-acquired pneumonia. This is a common infection among older adults with symptoms such as fever, cough, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. There are many pneumococcal vaccines available and some are publicly funded. It is best to talk to your healthcare team about what is best for you.
The Td vaccine protects individuals against tetanus and diphtheria. Tetanus or lockjaw is an infection that can occur if the tetanus bacteria enters the body through a cut in the skin. Diphtheria is an infection of the throat, skin, and nose. Adults should receive the Td vaccine booster every 10 years for protection, and it is available at no-charge from your family doctor, urgent care center, emergency department and some walk-in clinics.
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a painful rash caused by the reactivation of varicella zoster virus (the same virus that causes chickenpox). The vaccine reduces the risk of getting shingles and complications of shingles, such as post-herpetic neuralgia. This vaccine is given as a series of two doses, two to six months apart. It is free of charge for adults aged 65 to 70 years old through your family physician.
Overall, the vaccines outlined above are generally well tolerated. Common side effects include swelling, redness and soreness at the injection site, headache and fever; but the benefits outweigh these potential side effects.
Additional information on vaccines available for older adults can be found on the provincial website at https://www.ontario.ca/page/vaccines-adults. You can also speak with your family doctor, or call “811” to speak with a registered nurse 24/7.
Getting these vaccines is a great way to protect yourself and others.
Rose Yee is an Emergency Department Pharmacist at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS). Andra Linetski is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Geriatric Emergency Management at HHS and a volunteer with the Hamilton Council on Aging. For more information or to donate to the Hamilton Council on Aging please visit our website at www.hamiltoncoa.com.