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Are you one of the lucky ones who have had few colds and only mild cases of the flu? If so, you might think you don't need to get immunizations for common contagious illnesses. After all, immunizations are just for kids and at-risk adults, such as the very old, right?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults need regular vaccination shots just as much as children do. Even if you are fit and in good health, your body's immune defense system naturally slows down and weakens as you age. Starting with middle age, older adults disproportionately get very sick and die due to vaccine-preventable illnesses.
Unlike children, who are vaccinated to prevent disease, the goal for immunizing adults is to reduce the severity of an illness. For older adults, doing so helps avoid making a chronic illness worse, which can lead to functional decline and frailty. Immunizations also reduce hospitalization and death from infectious diseases in seniors.
Some adults feel that, because they regularly got all their vaccinations as children, they are covered today. However, the shots that we got as children weaken over time, so boosters may be recommended for immunity that fades over the years. Similarly, diseases change and so do the vaccines for them. Some newer vaccines may not have been available when you were young, or may provide protection against more strains of the disease than earlier vaccines.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should get a flu shot every year if you are age 50 or older. An annual flu shot can prevent the flu and related serious complications and hospitalization. Flu shots also are necessary for anyone who has a chronic condition like diabetes, asthma, heart or lung problems, and are recommended for all health care workers, as well as for anyone with a weakened immune system.
If you are age 60 or older, you may need the Zoster vaccine to prevent shingles. If you had chickenpox as a child, you could get shingles as an older adult. The same virus that causes chickenpox stays in your body and can later resurface as shingles - a painful, blistering rash. Shingles usually resolves within a few weeks, but sometimes can develop into a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia, in which the damaged nerve fibers continue to cause pain long after the blisters have healed.
Individuals age 65 or older need the pneumonia vaccine (also called PPV). Pneumonia is a very serious, life-threatening disease for older adults and can follow a bad cold, the flu or other type of chest infection. It can lead to hospitalization and a long recovery period. The pneumococcal pneumonia shot also is recommended for adults who have chronic health conditions.
Adults of any age should get a tetanus booster shot once every 10 years. Tetanus can strike after a simple scratch from a rose thorn, not just from a puncture wound from a rusty nail. The tetanus vaccine also protects you against diphtheria, another dangerous disease.
Vaccines are available from your primary care doctor or a clinic. Flu vaccine also may be available at drugstores and community clinics in the fall. Your insurance might cover necessary vaccinations. If you are 65 years and older, influenza and pneumococcal vaccines are covered by Medicare Part B. Medicare Part D drug coverage should cover the Zoster vaccine.
By getting a shot, you are protecting those you love, both children and older adults, from catching a disease from you. Vaccines are continually monitored for safety and effectiveness and cannot cause the disease they are designed to prevent. They can cause minor side effects, such as a sore arm or low-grade fever, which go away within a few days. Getting the disease without a vaccine would be much more likely to lead to severe problems than getting the vaccine.