Everything You Need to Know About Adult Vaccinations

Vaccines aren’t just something you get when you’re a kid, there are many situations in which adults also need vaccines. Instances of diseases previously considered inevitable, epidemic, or even deadly have been reduced or eliminated since the introduction of specialized adult vaccines. To stay protected from these infections, you need to keep up with immunizations as part of your regular health care regimen.

Why Do Adults Need Vaccinations?

Disease prevention is the main reason both adults and children are vaccinated. For example, the flu shot has become routine for nearly all adults to minimize the number of annual flu cases and prevent the virus from spreading to vulnerable populations. Other diseases are more serious and require proper vaccination to prevent fatalities.

Vaccines train the immune system by introducing a “dead” pathogen into the body. Antibodies are formed against the perceived invader, and the body is ready to mount an immune response should you contract an actual case of the disease.

You may require vaccines for other reasons, including:

  • Boosting prior vaccinations.
  • A new vaccine has been introduced since you were a child.
  • To avoid spreading infections to your own children, or children with whom you work.
  • You suffer from a chronic health condition putting you at higher risk for other diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website provides a document with a full schedule of suggested vaccinations for adults age 19 and older. Use the chart to determine if you’re in need of a new vaccine or a booster shot.

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Tetanus Vaccination

Tetanus is a potentially serious disease caused by bacteria found in soil, dust, and manure. Since these pathogens are so common, it’s almost impossible to avoid exposure during your lifetime. Most children are vaccinated against tetanus with a shot called Tdap, short for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Since this vaccine was introduced, cases of tetanus have dropped 99 percent.

If you’ve never been vaccinated, you can get the Tdap shot as an adult. This is administered once and is “boosted” every 10 years with a Td shot for tetanus and diphtheria. As many as 20 percent of people infected with tetanus die from the disease, and it’s known for causing muscle paralysis in the jaw, called lockjaw, and in other parts of the body. Due to the severity of tetanus infections, it’s important to check if your boosters are current. Your doctor will also recommend a booster if you are knowingly exposed to tetanus.

Vaccines for Whooping Cough

Although cases of pertussis, commonly called whooping cough, have gone down by 80 percent thanks to vaccinations, the disease has become more common in the U.S. since the 1980s. Whooping cough is more serious in children than adults, and adults are often vaccinated against the disease to prevent spreading the bacteria to infants. All healthcare providers working with children are advised to get the vaccine.

Symptoms of whooping cough in adults include a progressively worsening cough, loss of sleep, and difficulty eating. In some cases, the cough can become so severe it causes cracked ribs.

Immunization against whooping cough is part of the Tdap shot also given for tetanus and diphtheria. Children usually receive this vaccine as part of their routine immunizations, and a one-time Tdap booster is given to adults age 19 and older. Doctors suggest women expecting babies also be given the shot between week 27 and week 36 of pregnancy. This provides temporary protection for the newborn until he or she receives a separate vaccine called DTaP, given specifically to infants.

Protection Against Shingles

Adults age 60 and older are at risk for shingles, especially those who had chicken pox when they were younger. The virus, called varicella zoster virus, lays dormant after a bout with chicken pox and may reactivate later in life in the form of herpes zoster, commonly called shingles.

Around 98 percent of all adults in the U.S. are at risk for shingles due to prior chicken pox infections, and half of seniors over age 85 will come down with shingles at some point. Complications include lingering nerve pain, hearing or vision loss, and scarring.

Vaccination against shingles was introduced in 2006 and is given as a single-dose shot you can get at your doctor’s office. The shot is recommended for anyone in the at-risk age group, whether or not they’ve been infected with chicken pox, and individuals who have already had a shingles infection. Cases of this painful disease have dropped by 51 percent since vaccinations began. Getting the shot has also reduced cases of postherpetic neuralgia, a burning or stinging pain sometimes experienced after a shingles infection.

Adult Vaccinations for Traveling

If you’re going to be traveling overseas, chances are you’ll need additional vaccinations. Several immunizations are commonly recommended for travelers:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Japanese encephalitis
  • Meningococcal disease
  • Rabies
  • Typhoid and paratyphoid fever
  • Yellow fever

A doctor or travel health expert can determine which vaccines you need based on the details of your trip. Several weeks prior to traveling, visit a health care professional with experience in travel vaccinations and discuss your itinerary. Explain where you’ll be traveling, how long you’ll be staying, and what your lodging conditions will be. He or she will also need to know about food and water sources, the season you’ll be traveling in, and whether or not you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors.

It’s important to give yourself time to get vaccinated before your trip. Several vaccinations, such as those for hepatitis, are administered in multiple doses over a period of weeks, and you must complete the course before leaving the country. Contact your local health department or visit the CDC’s Traveler’s Health website for more information on travel vaccinations for adults.

If you’re not sure which vaccines you need to bring your immunizations up to date, review your medical history with your doctor. He or she can recommend new vaccines you haven’t yet had or booster shots for previous immunizations. Some shots are available in your provider’s office; others must be administered at specialized clinics. Community health centers may also provide vaccines for adults.

Keeping on top of your vaccination schedule keeps you protected from diseases once considered to be major problems. Thanks to advances in medicine, you can stay healthy and enjoy traveling without worrying about contracting infections with which your body is unfamiliar. Work with your doctor to ensure you have the shots you need at the right times to prevent the spread of preventable diseases.