If you haven’t had a vaccine in years, you’re not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that less than five percent of American adults are up-to-date on their immunizations, but the inconvenience of a few shots can be lifesaving. “People don’t realize the number of deaths that occur because of infectious diseases every year,” says Dr. William Sutker, infectious disease specialist at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. Here’s a guide to the shots recommended for adults, including two—shingles vaccine and whooping cough booster—that have been added in recent years.
This highly contagious upper respiratory infection is making a comeback because the childhood vaccine wears off over time. Although traditional shots for pertussis (whooping cough) may have caused fever and other reactions, the new booster vaccine, Tdap, is less likely to cause problems.
Who needs the vaccine: People who haven’t received a booster in 10 years should have the shot, which is generally given in combination with diphtheria and tetanus boosters. Adolescents should get a Tdap booster five years after their last Td shot. Two new vaccines are age-specific, so ask your doctor about the appropriate immunization for ages 11 through 64.
Pneumonia can become a serious health threat for people with diabetes, heart or lung disease, or anyone with a weakened immune system. And while there are different kinds of pneumonia, having one kind doesn’t provide immunity for others. The vaccine provides protection for up to 10 years against 88 percent of bacteria that cause pneumonia, although it does not protect against pneumonia caused by viruses.
Who needs the vaccine: People older than age 50, health care workers, people in close contact with children such as day-care workers and teachers, and those with a chronic illness. Grandparents who are frequently around young children — prime carriers of these germs — really need this protection because people older than age 65 are two to three times more likely to get pneumococcal infections.
The culprit for shingles is the same virus responsible for chicken pox. In most people the virus remains dormant, but in 15 percent of people it becomes active and causes shingles, a painful line of blisters on one side of the body. Pain can remain for years after the initial outbreak.
Who needs the vaccine: The shingles vaccine is recommended for people age 60 and older (only two percent have currently been vaccinated), although shingles can affect people of all ages. “With each decade a person’s immunity weakens, so that by 60 years of age, the likelihood of shingles significantly increases,” says Dr. Stephen Tyring, professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. If you don’t show evidence of immunity to chickenpox you should get two doses of that vaccine at least 28 days apart.
Measles, mumps, and rubella
Most cases of measles, mumps, and rubella in the United States occur when unvaccinated people travel overseas and bring the diseases back.
Who needs the vaccine: The MMR vaccine is recommended for adults born after 1956 who didn’t receive the vaccine as children. Women of child-bearing age who are not pregnant and don’t show immunity to rubella (German measles) through a blood test should get the MMR vaccine; if pregnant, vaccination should take place after delivery.
People who travel to or work in countries with a high incidence of Hepatitis A have increased risk of getting it. Every year, 25,000 people become infected, according to the CDC.
Who needs the vaccine: Adults with chronic liver disease or anyone who has been exposed to someone with hepatitis A should be immunized. People with clotting-factor disorders and anyone traveling to most parts of Latin America, Africa or Asia need the two-shot series. The good news is that immunity lasts up to 25 years.
Lifestyle factors or work situations result in an estimated 43,000 cases of hepatitis B each year in the U.S.
Who needs the vaccine: Health care and public safety workers who may be exposed to infected blood or body fluids should be vaccinated. Sexually active gay men and heterosexuals with multiple partners also need the vaccine. Partners of infected people and anyone who uses injected drugs have increased risk.
Know Before You Go: Diseases now rare in the United States are still common elsewhere, and they are just a plane ride away. Immunizations for meningitis, polio and yellow fever may be recommended for people traveling to certain countries. Check the CDC website to know which immunizations are required for safe international travel.