Vaccines for adults: What to know

October 5th, 2020
Senior women crafting and having a good time together
Staying up to date on vaccinations is important for adults, too. Photo: Getty Images.

With flu season fast approaching and COVID-19 continuing to spread, it’s a good time to review whether you’re up-to-date on vaccinations.

Dr. Shannon Becker, a family practice physician at UCHealth Primary Care in Craig, answers common questions about vaccines for adults below.

What is a vaccination?

A vaccination is a medication that helps train your immune system to fight off a certain disease. By introducing molecules from the disease, the vaccination causes an immune response that prepares your body to identify and fight off the disease in the future.

Vaccinations are usually given as shots, but some may be given through nasal sprays or oral medications.

“Vaccinations can either prevent disease completely, or in other cases, make a disease less severe for a person who has received the vaccination,” Becker said.

Are childhood immunizations enough?

No. Some vaccines, such as the vaccine for tetanus, require periodic updates. Others, such as the vaccine that helps prevent shingles, are only available for adults.

Which vaccines are recommended for adults?

Adults up to age 50 commonly receive the flu shot and the Tdap vaccination, which is for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis or whooping cough. The HPV vaccine, which prevents against the human papilloma virus that can cause cervical cancer, has been approved for adults up to age 45.

In addition to the flu shot and Tdap, adults ages 50 to 64 may get the vaccination for shingles. And after age 65, a pneumonia vaccine is also typically recommended.

“Certain medical conditions may affect this schedule or qualify you for additional vaccines at a different age, so it is important to contact your physician regarding what is right for you,” Becker said.

For instance, someone who is immunocompromised, pregnant or has increased risk of a disease due to their occupation may qualify for vaccinations earlier. Becker recommends patients with diabetes have a pneumonia vaccine before age 65, and those with asthma are encouraged to have a flu shot instead of the flu nasal spray.

When should I get a vaccine?

In most cases, flu shots are recommended in the fall. Other vaccines for adults can be taken any time of year, based on age and past vaccinations.

What is a booster shot?

A booster shot is an extra dose of a vaccine given at a specific time after the initial dose. “It is designed to ‘boost’ the immune system and is given when evidence shows that the effectiveness of a vaccine wanes over time,” Becker said. For example, the tetanus shot is often boosted every 10 years.

What common concerns do you hear about vaccines for adults?

“One common concern is that the flu shot gives the person the flu,” Becker said. “The flu shot is a killed vaccine, so it cannot give a person the flu. It can ramp up the immune system as it is supposed to, which can make a person feel a bit under the weather for a few days.”

And some adults worry that if they’re allergic to eggs, they can’t get a flu shot, as some forms of the flu vaccine contain small amounts of egg protein.

“However, this amount is small enough that it should not cause an allergic reaction, and it is recommended (for adults) that those with egg allergy still get their flu shot,” Becker said.

What if I have questions about vaccines for adults?

“Bottom line, talk to your doctor,” Becker said. “They can help guide you regarding what immunizations are recommended for your age and medical condition risk factors.”

 

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About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com.