Think of vaccines and you might envision teary-eyed kids at the doctor’s office or flu clinic getting a cartoon character bandage on their arm after getting a shot. But there are plenty of reasons adults should get vaccines too.
The vaccines you need as an adult depend on everything from your age and lifestyle to high-risk medical conditions, travel plans, and which shots you’ve had in the past.
“Vaccination is as important for adults as it is for children, and yet many adults are not optimally vaccinated,” says William Schaffner, MD, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
Although there has been a slight increase in adult vaccination rates in recent years, Melinda Wharton, MD, MPH, deputy director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization & Respiratory Diseases, says “there clearly is a gap in getting adults vaccinated.”
You can keep track of vaccines you may need as an adult with an online CDC scheduling tool or by taking a CDC quiz. You can also ask your doctor or your pharmacist because in many states they are licensed to give adult vaccines.
The best reasons to get vaccinated are to protect yourself and to protect the people around you. The details:
1. You may no longer be protected. You may have received a vaccine as a child. But some vaccines require a booster if you want to remain protected. Protection may not be life-long for diseases like pertussis (whooping cough) or tetanus, which is usually given with the diphtheria toxoid. The CDC recommends a booster for the latter every 10 years after an initial childhood series.
2. Getting vaccines helps protect your kids -- especially babies too young for vaccines. Whooping cough vaccines are recommended for people who have contact with young babies. The same is true for the flu vaccine. There’s no flu vaccine licensed for infants younger than 6 months old. “We call that creating a cocoon of protection around the baby,” Schaffner says.
3. Some vaccines are just for adults. The shingles vaccine is a good example. Shingles (also known as herpes zoster or zoster) is caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. It can cause a severe and painful skin rash. The risk for shingles increases as a person ages. The vaccine is recommended for adults 60 and older.
4. You may need them when you travel. Headed to the developing world? You may run into illnesses you’d never find at home. The yellow fever vaccination is required for travel to parts of sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. The Saudi Arabian government also requires the meningococcal vaccination -- but only for travel during the hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca. You can check the CDC's web site for details about what you may need for your destination.
5. Everyone needs a flu vaccine, every year. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine annually if they do not have a medical reason not to receive the vaccine. Each year’s vaccination is designed to protect against the three strains of influenza anticipated to be most commonly circulated in the upcoming flu season.
6. Your kids have set an example. Most children don’t have a choice about getting shots. But why should they be the only one getting stuck with a needle? Want to show them that prevention through vaccination works? “Mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa should get their vaccinations just as children do,” Schaffner says.
7. You didn’t get fully vaccinated as a child. Not everyone was, or is, fully vaccinated as a child. If you didn’t get vaccines for things like measles, mumps, and rubella or chickenpox (or varicella) as a child -- or any of those diseases themselves -- you need them as an adult. And don’t forget. Some older adults were born at a time when children weren’t vaccinated “as comprehensively as we vaccinate people today,” Schaffner says.
8. Newer vaccines have been developed. Some vaccinations recommended for adults are fairly new. For instance, the FDA approved the first HPV vaccine and shingles vaccine in 2006. Although the rate of adults being vaccinated with newer vaccines is increasing, awareness remains a challenge, Wharton says.
9. You’re going back to college. The downturn has forced many adults back to school. But many colleges require proof of routine vaccinations. You may not have those records. Your parents may not have those records. And your childhood doctor may no longer be practicing. It’s OK to repeat a vaccine. But, Wharton says, it’s “a hassle and cost” that could be prevented by keeping good records.
10. You work in the health care profession. Health care providers are exposed to all sorts of potential infections, as well as blood and bodily fluids. Most are required to have not only a complete vaccination series and evidence of immunity, but also to get annual influenza vaccination. This includes things like measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), and hepatitis B.
11. You’re sexually active with a number of partners. The hepatitis B vaccine is highly recommended. Hepatitis B can be transmitted from person to person through contact with blood, semen, and vaginal fluid. It is 50-100 times more easily to be infected by hepatitis B than by HIV. Your partner may not appear ill, but could be carrying the disease.
12. You have asthma, heart, lung disease, diabetes, or other chronic disease. Or you smoke cigarettes. Or your immune system is otherwise compromised. The pneumococcal vaccine helps prevent serious disease such as pneumonia, meningitis, and blood infection caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae. Get it because you may be at increased risk for these infections, Schaffner says.