Vaccinations for Seniors
By Clemencia Rasquinha, MD
Seniors often ask me about vaccinations, and I’ve noticed that they’re seeking advice about which vaccinations are required and which vaccinations are recommended. Television, news, and online sources can offer us information on any topic at any time, but it’s still important to consult a physician for medical advice, especially when it may be difficult to interpret all of the information we can gather easily from such a variety of sources. Here, I’ll offer an overview of vaccines, in general, and details related to the vaccinations I most often discuss with patients, but please also meet with your doctor if you have any questions about which vaccinations might be the most appropriate for you and your ongoing health.
Vaccinations: What and Why
Vaccines are administered to stimulate a person’s immune system in order to protect against specific pathogens. They’re usually given in the form of an injection and are often composed of inactive or ineffective forms of the pathogens they’re designed to protect against. When a vaccine is introduced into the body, the immune system will react by developing resistance to the pathogen. This resistance can then help the body effectively fight off the pathogen when it may be encountered in its full-strength form.
Vaccines, which are also called immunizations, are an effective way to prevent infectious disease or reduce its severity. Many vaccinations are administered to children, and these vaccinations have been effective in preventing a variety of infectious diseases such as polio, tetanus, and smallpox, which caused millions of deaths worldwide until its vaccination was administered on a global scale to effectively eradicate the disease in 1979.
While federal laws don’t require vaccinations, state laws mandate proof of vaccinations for entry into public schools in all 50 states, so children face vaccination requirements for this reason, but adult vaccinations are rarely required. However, some vaccinations are recommended or required for adults traveling in certain areas, but even if you plan on staying within the U.S., continue reading to determine which adult vaccinations are recommended regardless of your location.
I recommend that seniors get an influenza, or flu vaccination each year. It’s best to get a flu shot in the autumn months before the flu season hits. The influenza virus is important for seniors because complications resulting from the flu can lead to further health issues or even death. As people age, the flu can affect them more severely, making vaccination an important preventative measure. It’s a common misconception that getting the flu vaccine causes the flu. You might feel a slight increase in body temperature following administration of a flu vaccine, but this is the body’s normal reaction to the immunization process.
I recommend the Tdap vaccination for seniors who have not received the vaccination previously. The Tdap vaccination is designed to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, which is commonly known as whooping cough. While many people think of whooping cough as a children’s disease, it can be fatal for adults, and seniors may have increased exposure to young people who have the disease. Pertussis and tetanus are real concerns for seniors, so I recommend this vaccine, which is aimed at helping the body develop resistance to both.
I recommend the shingles vaccination for seniors who have not received the vaccination previously. While many people also think of shingles as a children’s disease, shingles can be extremely painful for seniors. Age is an independent risk factor for developing shingles and also for developing a nerve condition called postherpetic neuralgia that can come along with shingles. In order to avoid a prolonged painful condition and other complications, I recommend the shingles vaccination for seniors.
I recommend the pneumococcal vaccination for seniors who have not received the vaccination previously. This vaccine won’t protect against all types of pneumonia, but it is designed to protect against pneumococcal pneumonia, which can be fatal. Seniors who have had lung disease, especially, are more susceptible to pneumonia, and seniors in general are more likely to develop pneumonia in relation to pneumococcus. Recent increased drug marketing has been visible for the PCV13 vaccination, so many patients ask me about this one specifically. The PCV13 and the PPSV23 vaccinations both protect against pneumococcal bacteria, and the vaccines can both be administered within a year of each other, but not at the same time.
I do not recommend the measles vaccination for those who were born before 1957. I often get questions about the measles vaccination, likely due to news of measles outbreaks, but acquiring measles as a senior is unlikely. Most seniors already have necessary immunity levels since diseases such as measles and mumps were rampant during their childhoods, but anyone born during or after 1957 who has not had measles or been vaccinated should get the MMR vaccine.
While I recommend the influenza, Tdap, shingles, and pneumococcal vaccinations as important preventative health measures for seniors, other vaccinations may also be recommended based on exposure and risk factors. Lifestyle risk factors such as drug use or unprotected sex can increase exposure to some infectious diseases, and certain jobs such as those in the medical field can increase the likelihood of exposure to infectious pathogens.
I recommend the hepatitis A vaccine to seniors traveling in areas where they might be exposed, and the hepatitis B vaccine should be administered to those who may be exposed to blood, such as health care workers. Although meningitis has been another infectious disease recently in the news due to outbreaks on college campuses, I only recommend the meningococcal vaccination for seniors who believe they have been exposed or are at risk.
Vaccines are one important part of a preventative health care routine, which also involves exercise, a proper diet, and regular check-ups with a physician. Consult the news sources that you have in front of you and at your fingertips to gather important medical information, but be sure to consult your doctor for advice before making a decision that could impact your future health.