by Dr. Robert G. Johnson, Jr
It’s often thought that only babies and young children need to get vaccines to prevent childhood illnesses. Yet, vaccinations are a vital part of a senior adult’s preventative health maintenance, too. There are four crucial vaccines every senior needs to ask for at their next doctor’s visit.
Influenza, a viral illness, occurs throughout the year and is responsible for up to 40,000 deaths annually in the U.S.; mainly children under the age of 2 and adults over the age of 65. Tragically, simply getting vaccinated could have prevented most of these deaths. The Flu Vaccine slightly changes every year to account for variability in the strain of Influenza that is expected. An annual Flu shot builds up a ‘library’ of immunity to multiple strains of the virus over time. As soon as it is available, usually September or October, get your Flu shot!
Common myths about Flu vaccine:
1. You can get the Flu from the Flu shot. This is impos- sible because the vaccine does not contain any ‘live viruses’. Within two weeks of getting the shot, you may get a mild case of ‘flu like symptoms’, and feel a little ‘under the weather’ for a day or two. This is a good sign, as it indicates a robust immune response resulting in more complete protection from the virus. However, the typical vaccine is only up to 90% effective at preventing the disease, so a few vaccinated people will still get the Flu.
2. The Flu shot only lasts a few months. Studies have shown that the influenza vaccine is protective for up to a full year. Winter is the peak season, so it makes the most sense to get it in the fall. Your immune system requires about 2 weeks to be fully charged after getting the vaccine.
3. “I never get the Flu, so I don’t need the Flu shot.” Even if you are healthy, the longer you go without getting a Flu shot, the more likely you are to get the Flu. Without it, you could expose a small child or frail adult, which could potentially be fatal.
Every 10 years all adults should get this vaccine because your immunity wears off. Today’s tetanus shot, ”Tdap”, is actually 3 vaccines in one: Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertus- sis (whooping cough). If you haven’t had a tetanus shot since 2007, then you probably haven’t had this newer version. The Centers for Disease Control is concerned that adults are be- coming a reservoir of Pertussis because their immunity wore off many years ago. Although adults usually do not become severely ill, babies and young children can die from it.
Pneumonia is one of the most common infectious causes of serious illness and death in adults over the age of 65. An ef- fective vaccine, Pneumovax 23, is available for all adults over the age of 65, as well as younger adults with chronic respira- tory illness such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. If you get this vaccine prior to age 65, you should also get a booster shot after the age of 65. Although it does not offer 100% protection against pneumonia, it does lower the in- cidence of and it’s seriousness significantly. This can mean the difference between life and death in a susceptible individual.
Zostavax prevents shingles, a reactivation of the child- hood virus Chicken Pox, which lives in your nervous system in a dormant state. Because shingles predominately occurs after age 60, all adults should get the vaccine at age 60 or above. The vaccine is not 100% effective, but does reduce your chances of getting Shingles by about 50%. The symptoms of Shingles include a localized, blistering rash that is exquisitely painful. The lesions are very similar to the Chicken Pox rash, but are usually limited to one side of the body and in a more limited area. The rash may be mild or severe and can last for several weeks. Those who are immunized usually get a much milder form of the illness. The worst part of this illness, however, is the intense, lingering, deep nerve pain that can last for months or even years after the rash has healed. While rarely fatal, it can have serious complications including skin infection, skin scaring, and blindness (due to scaring of the cornea). Agonizingly painful, itcan cause significant disability for months. One word of caution: It is a ‘live attenuated’ vaccine, meaning it has a weakened strain of the live virus in it. After getting the Zostavax vaccine, you should avoid contact with children or pregnant women who have either not had Chicken Pox or have not been immunized against it, for two weeks.
I hope this brief summary of four vaccines that are particularly important for seniors has been helpful. There are several other vaccines to consider getting if you’ve never had them. For a complete list of all of the recommended vaccines for adults and children please visit the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/.