By Dr. Beth Hodges
I’ve always thought it was pretty cool in superhero movies when a character used some power or technology to surround themselves with a protective shield or a force field that kept out the bad guys. Immunizations are like that. Getting a shot to ward off the flu is like putting up an influenza force field around your body. Several vaccinations are recommended for most older adults. If you have special conditions you may need additional vaccines but here we’re discussing more common situations.
1. Influenza. This is probably the single most important vaccine for adults, and you need it every year. The vaccine is comprised of the top three or four strains of flu most likely to be prevalent in that year. It’s the equivalent of scientific fortune-telling as the strains must be chosen at least six months before the start of flu season in the U.S. This allows time to to mass-produce the vaccine and get it FDA approved. Thus, the vaccine isn’t always on the mark, but there’s enough partial protection conveyed that folks who get the flu shot, even if not fully protected from getting the flu, are very unlikely to die from it if they do contract the infection.
Please get your flu shot every year! Even if you have egg allergies you can get the flu shot now, but it’s recommended you do so in a doctor’s office rather than a pharmacy, workplace, or church, so a reaction (although unlikely) can be safely managed. You should not get a flu shot if you have a history of Guillain Barre syndrome that occurred within six weeks of receiving a flu vaccine.
2. Pneumonia. Forget everything you ever heard about getting pneumonia vaccines every six to nine years. The current recommendation is to get the “old” pneumonia vaccine (Pneumovax) and at least one year later get the “new” pneumonia vaccine (Prevnar 13). That’s all you need. Contrary to popular belief, the pneumonia vaccine does not protect you from getting pneumonia. It prevents you from dying from 24 different strains of streptococcal pneumonia bacteria—a very dangerous bacteria. This is not the streptococcus that causes strep throat.
3. Shingles. This was a single vaccine, but now has an improved option of two doses over two to six months. There are some twists to this new option. You no longer need to have a proven history of prior chickenpox infection to get this vaccine. There is a benefit from the vaccine even if you have had outbreaks of shingles in the past (though you should wait at least six weeks after an episode to get the vaccine).
Get the new two-dose series even if you have taken the previous single-dose vaccine because the newer version is more effective. If you are immunosuppressed (taking cancer treatments, certain rheumatologic drugs, or have an immunologic disorder) you should NOT get this vaccine, as it is a weakened live virus and could give a vulnerable person shingles.
4. TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis). Yes, you can still get tetanus (lockjaw) in this day and age. There are usually around 50 cases of tetanus in the U.S. each year, and 5-10 of them are fatal. If not fatal, they can be neurologically devastating. Most cases occur in people over the age of 60. A booster is recommended every 10 years.
Pertussis protection is included with the tetanus vaccine . One dose of TDAP is recommended in adulthood, and the rest of the doses can be Td (Tetanus and diphtheria)
Four shots—not a bad defense shield huh? Now you’re ready to go out into the world and fight crime—er, I mean, GET VACCINATED!
*Remember, if you have a chronic medical condition or travel frequently, you should talk to your doctor about any other vaccine recommendations. Be proactive; make sure to keep your immunizations up to date.
Dr. Beth Hodges, MD is a family practice and palliative care/hospice physician in Asheboro, N.C., as well as a part-time medical director for HealthTeam Advantage.