Types of Vaccines for Older Adults

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 16, 2021

Vaccinations are injections that teach your immune system how to fight off different diseases to prevent you from getting sick. In the U.S., many people associate vaccinations with young children because most U.S. children receive important vaccinations before they turn six.

However, there are some vaccines that should be given to adults 50 and over. Here are the types of vaccines you might need to get as an older adult.

Flu Vaccines

Everyone who can safely get vaccinated should get a flu vaccine every fall. Older adults should prioritize their annual flu vaccines since influenza can have serious or even deadly complications for them.

It’s estimated that 70% to 85% of all annual flu deaths are adults older than 65. More than half of all flu-related hospitalizations occur in this age group as well. While no vaccination is guaranteed to completely prevent an illness, studies show that people who received their annual flu shot but still got the flu later have milder symptoms and heal quicker.

There are several types of flu vaccines: nasal spray vaccines, traditional flu shots, and high-dose flu shots. The CDC recommends that older adults receive either the traditional flu shot or the high dose shot. The high-dose vaccine includes the same ingredients as the standard shot, but in a higher concentration. It provides slightly more protection to adults who would likely get very sick if they caught the flu.

COVID-19 Vaccines

One of the newest vaccines on the market, the three approved COVID-19 vaccines, are currently the most important vaccinations an older adult can get. Older adults are more likely to die if they catch COVID-19, with 80% of all deaths being people older than 65.

The CDC has officially approved adults ages 65 and older for the phase 1c COVID-19 vaccine rollout. If you are an older adult, you can sign up for any approved COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are available to you to protect yourself from COVID-19.

The three currently-approved COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. are the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. All three have been shown to be safe and provide 86% efficacy in protecting against serious cases of COVID-19. In particular, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 95% effective.

Tdap/Td Vaccines

Tdap stands for “tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough)". All adults are recommended to get the Tdap vaccine if they didn’t get it as a child to help protect themselves and others. Whooping cough can be fatal to very young and very old people, so getting the first vaccination can help you keep other people in your life safe.

Older adults should also get the Td vaccination booster once every ten years since it stops protecting them from tetanus and diphtheria after a decade. You can catch tetanus and diphtheria even if you have been vaccinated against them if it’s been more than ten years since you last received a booster vaccination.

Shingles Vaccines

This vaccine is also known as the “Zoster” vaccine because it provides immunity against herpes zoster, or shingles. Adults who have caught chickenpox in the past are at risk of getting shingles in the future.

Shingles is a very painful condition that occurs when dormant chickenpox viruses living in your nerve cells “wake up” and cause a rash, inflammation, and irritation along nerves in your body. Some people will feel this pain for months after the rash has healed, which is a condition known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). The risk of shingles increases as you get older.

Any adult over 50 who has had chickenpox in the past can get a shingles vaccine to prevent the condition or reduce its severity.

Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPSV23) and Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine (PCV13)

These two vaccines are recommended for people who might have a weakened immune system or who are older than 65. The PPSV23 vaccine protects you from meningitis and blood infections that may be dangerous to you as you get older. Meanwhile, if you have any type of condition that makes your immune system weaker, then the PCV13 vaccine protects you from pneumonia.

Vaccine Safety

Vaccines are safe. Modern vaccines cannot cause you to catch the illness you’re being vaccinated against. They can sometimes cause mild side effects like a runny nose, headaches, or a mild sore throat. However, this is not because you have caught a disease. Instead, it’s a sign that your immune system has noticed the vaccine and is doing its job to learn how to fight that disease and keep you from getting sick in the future.

Some people should not get vaccinated. In some cases, people who are immunocompromised or who are allergic to ingredients in a vaccine should not get vaccinated because it will cause more harm than good. However, people without allergies or immune problems can get vaccinated to protect the people who can’t get vaccinated. This is known as “herd immunity,” when enough people in an area are vaccinated so diseases can’t spread and affect unvaccinated people.

Show Sources


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Adults 65 & Over,” “High-Dose Flu Vaccine,” “How Well Flu Vaccines Work,” “Jurisdictions: Vaccinating Older Adults and People with Disabilities,” “Older Adults,” “Pertussis Vaccination,” “Recommended Vaccines Needed by Age,” “Recommended Vaccines for Adults,” “TD VIS,” “Vaccine Benefits.”

Food and Drug Administration: “Zostavax (Herpes Zoster Vaccine) Questions and Answers.”

World Health Organization: “Vaccine Safety Basics.”

Yale Medicine: “Comparing the COVID-19 Vaccines: How Are They Different?”

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