Did you know that as you age, your immunity to the diseases you’ve been vaccinated against as a child starts to wane?
So says Dr. Dana Hawkinson, infectious disease specialist at The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas. That’s why it’s just as important to be vaccinated as an adult as it was as a child. Plus, some of the illnesses you could contract in the second half of life aren’t just an inconvenience — they could make you very sick or even kill you.
So here’s what you need to know about the most common vaccines for older adults — influenza (flu), pneumococcal pneumonia and shingles — plus boosters you need for tetanus and pertussis. Use this chart from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for more information on when to get which vaccines.
If you don’t know by now, influenza or the flu is nothing to sneeze at. It can be a killer, especially for those 65 and older. Flu season typically lasts from fall through spring.
“Influenza is a dangerous disease that can lead to pneumonia and fatal outcomes,” warns Hawkinson. Because the flu virus changes every year, you need to get a flu shot annually. It is recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older.
The shot becomes available in late August, and Hawkinson recommends getting immunized in September or October so your body has enough time to build up immunity after the shot. That can take a few weeks.
However, if you miss this window, don’t forego the shot altogether.
“[People should] still continue to get it until the end of flu season,” Hawkinson adds, “because it can have so many important effects.” While you can still contract the flu after getting the vaccine, the severity of the illness may be lessened. “Also, patients who have gotten the vaccine have fewer days being ill, and they have even fewer days missing work,” Hawkinson says.
Having an egg allergy does not mean you can’t get the shot: there is an egg-free, FDA-approved influenza vaccine.
This vaccine is known under the brand names Pneumovax and Prevnar, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and each prevents different strains of strep pneumonia.
The Prevnar version of the vaccine is given starting in childhood and then again as an adult 65 or older. The Pneumovax version is usually for adults only. Pneumococcal pneumonia is a bacterial infection that can have dire consequences, especially for those with certain health conditions, such as chronic heart or lung disease, or diabetes.
The virus that causes chicken pox also causes shingles, a blistering rash that can produce a burning, electric shock or stabbing pain where it erupts. Also called herpes zoster, it can lie dormant for years in your system.
Some people who got the chicken pox as a kid will never develop shingles. Others might get it as an adult multiple times. No one knows why someone has a shingles outbreak, though some believe a stressful event can bring it on.
The shingles vaccine is recommended for individuals over 60. Unfortunately, says the CDC, the vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective. But considering that the effects and complications of shingles increase in severity as you age, it makes more sense to get the vaccine than not, Hawkinson says.
One of those complications is post-herpetic neuralgia: a burning pain that lasts months or years after the rash has healed. The risk of neuralgia is decreased if you begin taking antiviral drugs within 72 hours of developing the shingles rash, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A 2005 New England Journal of Medicine article underscores the severity of the disease: “The pain and discomfort associated with herpes zoster can be prolonged and disabling, diminishing the patient’s quality of life and ability to function to a degree comparable to that in diseases such as congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction [heart attack], diabetes mellitus type 2, and major depression.”
Tetanus and Pertussis Booster
You should be getting what’s called a Tdap booster every 10 years. That’s because Tdap includes protection against tetanus — the T in the shot — and pertussis or whooping cough — the P in the shot.
“As we age, we become more susceptible to pertussis, and we can spread it to the younger generation that hasn’t yet been immunized against whooping cough,” says Hawkinson.
Another thing to consider: While it is recommended you get this booster every 10 years, with regards to tetanus, if you are injured (by an animal bite or a cut from metal) more than five years after your last booster, you should get another one just to be safe.
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