Caring Currents

Health Alert: 7 Vaccines Few Adults Have Had -- But Need

Last updated: Jul 31, 2009

flu shot!
Image by samantha celera used under the creative commons attribution no derivs license.

Vaccines for adults? Yes! That's the resounding pronouncement of U.S. health officials, who last week announced results of a new CDC survey that showed that older Americans are worrisomely ignorant about the vaccines available for adults and the diseases they protect us from. Vaccines could save hundreds of thousands of lives every year, but few adults have had them, or even know about them. Here are 7 vaccines every older adult should know about.

1. Shingles or Herpes Zoster: You probably had chicken pox as a child and were told you're now immune to that disease. But shingles, a painful inflammatory rash, is caused by the same virus, which can lay dormant for decades and then reactivate. The shingles vaccine is recommended for adults over age 60, who are most at risk, but only a measly 7 percent have had it.

2. Varicella, or Chicken Pox: If you didn't have chicken pox as a child, or aren't sure, it's safest to have the varicella vaccine, as well. Chicken pox in adults is a much more serious disease.

3. Tetanus, Diptheria, and Pertussis, or Whooping Cough Vaccine (Tdap): Although you had all or at least some of these vaccines when you were young, the immunity they conferred isn't lifelong. If you haven't had a booster in the past ten years, you're not protected. The CDC survey found that only 2 percent of adults are protected against whooping cough and only 50 percent are protected against tetanus. (These used to be separate shots.)

4. Pneumococcus, or Pneumonia: Each year, 4500 adults die of pneumonia, a lung infection that's preventable with the pneumococcal vaccine. Recommended for anyone 65 and older.

5. Meningitis Vaccine: One of the newest vaccines, introduced in 2000, the meningitis vaccine isn't officially recommended yet. But meningitis is a very serious disease, so if you have a weakened immune system or travel to areas where the incidence is high, get this vaccine.

6. Annual Flu Shot: The flu and related pneumonia kill 36,000 people every year, deaths health officials consider preventable. Everyone ages 50 and older should have the flu vaccine.

7. Hepatitis B: This one isn't recommended for all adults, just for those at risk, which means any man or woman who's had more than one sexual partner in a recent six-month period, illegal drug users, gay men, or anyone who's in close contact with another person who has hepatitis B.

If you don't know whether you've had these vaccines, don't worry. Ask your doctor to check your records, if they're available. If not, assume you haven't had them - most of us haven't -- and go ahead and have all the vaccines required today. If one's a duplicate, it's really nothing to worry about. There's no danger from having a vaccine you already had (aside from its possible side effects), but there's enormous danger in remaining unvaccinated.