Vaccines aren’t just for kids. Adults need them too, including seniors. Here’s a sobering statistic: About 45,000 adults die each year from illnesses that could have been prevented by a vaccination.
As people age, they become more susceptible to complications from illnesses like the flu. The best way to prevent these complications is to get the appropriate vaccines. A doctor can help guide seniors decide which vaccines to get, but there are five vaccines most seniors need.
The influenza vaccine is made up of flu virus that’s been inactivated so it can’t cause infection. The immune system responds to this inactive virus and develops antibodies against it. For people over the age of 65, there’s a high-dose influenza vaccine available for added protection.
Why is it so important to get a flu vaccine? During the past flu season, influenza claimed the lives of those over the age of 65 at historically high rates, as high as 116 deaths per 100,000. Seniors are at greater risk for flu complications like pneumonia and death than younger adults are. In addition, they’re more susceptible to some seasonal influenza strains.
This past season, the H3N2 influenza virus predominated, a viral strain that disproportionately caused complications in older adults.
When’s the best time to get it? It’s important to get the vaccination early, before flu season begins, since it takes about two weeks to build up enough protective antibodies.
The pneumococcal vaccine protects against pneumonia caused by the pneumococcus bacteria. Doctors recommend that everyone over the age of 65 get vaccinated against the pneumococcus bacteria. Adults as young as 50 years old may need the vaccine if they smoke or have health problems that put them at greater risk.
Possible complications from pneumococcal pneumonia include meningitis and blood stream infection with the pneumococcus bacteria. The good news is the vaccine is effective and needs to be given only once in most cases although some adults with certain medical problems may need a booster in five years.
Herpes Zoster (Shingles) Vaccine
The herpes zoster vaccine protects against a painful condition called shingles, a disease that causes a painful, blistering rash. People who have had the chicken pox are at risk for herpes zoster since it’s caused by the same virus. After a bout of chicken pox, the virus can live in nerve endings and be reactivated as shingles later in life, most commonly after the age of 60.
Shingles can lead to a painful complication called post-herpetic neuralgia that can linger for months. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults over the age of 60 get the vaccine to reduce their risk of a shingles and its complications including post-herpetic neuralgia. The vaccine cuts the risk of shingles by half.
This vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella. The CDC recommends that adults born after 1956 get vaccinated. The vaccine was developed in 1957 so most people born after this time have already received the vaccine and are immune since you only need it once. Anyone unsure as to their MMR vaccine status should talk to their doctor.
The Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine protects against whopping cough, diphtheria and pertussis. Whopping cough, or pertussis, has made a resurgence and older adults can pass this disease onto infants who are greater risk for complications.
Men and women over the age of 65 should get the TdAP vaccine if they’ve never had it to protect against whopping cough. It’s also important to get a tetanus booster every 10 years, but a separate vaccine called Td that doesn’t contain pertussis is appropriate once seniors have gotten one TdAP vaccine.
Some doctors also recommend that seniors with certain health problems get the hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccine, two infections that cause liver inflammation.
The Bottom Line?
All adults and seniors should talk to their doctor to get specific vaccine recommendations to reduce the risk of complications, including death, from preventable diseases.
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