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Adult Immunizations: Are You Protected?

The flu vaccine, tetanus boosters, hepatitis shots -- why adults still need vaccinations.

Vaccinations Benefit Others

Obviously, getting a vaccination protects you from getting sick, but vaccines have a greater benefit: they protect the people around you from getting sick.

It's a phenomenon called "herd immunity." If most people in a group are vaccinated against a disease, even the people who aren't vaccinated are much less likely to get it.

This reason for vaccination is important, because vaccines can be dangerous for some people. For instance, some are too sick to handle a vaccine or are allergic to it, but if the people around them are vaccinated, they are more likely to be safe. "It's an indirect way of protecting them," says Wasserman.

There's also a flip side. If you live with someone with a compromised immune system from a disease or its treatment -- like chemotherapy -- tell your doctor before you get vaccinated. The weakened version of a virus in a vaccine could spread from the vaccinated person to the ill family member. Sometimes, even the weakened virus is dangerous for a person with a compromised immune system.

Which Immunizations Do Adults Need?

The vaccinations you need depend on your age, health, and vaccination history. But here's a rundown of some of the common vaccines adults should get.

  • Diphtheria and tetanus. Diphtheria can cause breathing problems, paralysis, and heart failure. Tetanus can cause severe and dangerous stiffening of the muscles throughout the body.

    The CDC recommends that all adults have a diphtheria/tetanus booster shot every ten years. "Diphtheria is still a rare disease these days, but it's most common in people over 65," says Wasserman. "Continued vaccinations are important."

  • Influenza(Flu) vaccine. The CDC recommends that all people 50 and over get the flu vaccine annually, but it's also a good idea for adults of any age. While you may think of the flu as just an annoyance, it can be a serious, even fatal, illness. The CDC estimates that about 36,000 people in the U.S. die from the flu every year.

    While the injected vaccine is standard, Wasserman is impressed with the more recent inhaled flu vaccine. "It seems to work even better than the injected vaccine and causes fewer side effects," he says.

  • HepatitisA. Hepatitis A is spread by contact with contaminated food or fluids and can cause serious liver disease. The CDC recommends vaccinations for adults who use injected street drugs, men who have sex with men, and people with liver disease and other illnesses.

    Most cases of hepatitis A are mild but some result in severe illness, requiring an emergency liver transplant. "The hepatitis A vaccine protects against a rare but potentially devastating illness," says Wasserman.

  • Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B can lead to chronic liver disease and other problems. In the U.S., 80,000 people get it each year and 4,000-5,000 die. Hepatitis B is spread by contact with bodily fluids, and is most commonly spread by sex or infected needles.

    The CDC recommends the HBV vaccine for adults who have an increased risk of getting the disease because of their job or lifestyle.

  • Pneumococcal vaccine. The CDC recommends all people 65 and older get this vaccine, which protects against serious bacterial infection of the lungs, brain, and blood.

    "I think that people who are middle-aged or older should get the pneumococcal vaccine," says Wasserman. "Pneumococcal pneumonia is a major cause of illness in older folks ... A lot of people who are said to die from flu actually die from the pneumococcal pneumonia that follows the flu."

  • HPV (human papillomavirus.) HPV is a very common virus which can be transmitted by physical and sexual contact. While it is not harmful in itself, certain strains can lead to cervical cancer, so a vaccine that prevents HPV has tremendous implications.

    "It's amazing," says Wasserman. "What could be greater than a vaccine that actually prevents a form of cancer?"

    The vaccine, Gardasil, is 100% effective against four common strains of HPV that cause about 70% of all cervical cancers. Another HPV vaccine, Cervarix, is in development.

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