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 pregnant women (preferably between 27 and 36 weeks' gestation) and 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.