Why adults need vaccinations
If you’re an adult in America, odds are you’re due for a shot. Here’s what you need to know about vaccinations.
The success of the COVID-19 shots is the latest reminder that vaccines work. More than 190 million of us have had at least 1 shot for the coronavirus. As that number grows, the disease’s spread rate shrinks. But the flip side of this vaccine-related pandemic tale isn’t as rosy. Thanks to lockdowns, vaccination rates in general have plunged. And adult rates weren’t great to begin with.
“During COVID we really suffered,” says LJ Tan, PhD. He’s the chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition. “Coverage rates for some adult vaccines plummeted as much as 85%.” The simplest reason: Telemedicine replaced office visits for many people. And you can’t get a vaccination over Zoom.
But even before that, few adults were 100% up to date with their vaccination schedule. Yes, adults have a schedule too — not just kids. “Pediatricians are professional immunizers; the immunization schedule is the skeleton around which childhood visits are built,” says William Schaffner, MD, medical director at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “That’s not the case for adults.”
Plus, many adults don’t go in for wellness visits. If you see the doctor only when you’re sick, getting shots won’t come up. (Under the weather? Use the Optum Perks app to find discounts on the medications you need to get back on your feet.)
So why do you need vaccinations as an adult? Well, protection from childhood vaccines can wear off over time, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You’re also prone to different diseases as you age. Vaccines can keep you safe.
How to tell if you are due for a vaccine
If you were a kid any time before the late 1990s, your immunization records were probably kept on paper. (Ah, the good old days.) Digital records were uncommon back then. If you don’t know where your record is, try these:
- Ask your parents if they kept a copy.
- Look through your baby book if you had one.
- See if your high school still has your file.
The good news is, if you can’t find your records, it’s easy to get re-vaccinated. “If you did have the vaccination, there’s absolutely no harm to get it again,” says Tan.
So which vaccines do you need?
The short answer: That depends. Your age, health, job and other things factor in. Below are the main vaccines that the CDC recommends for adults. Still, you may need others. Talk to your doctor.
This one is a no-brainer. Everybody age 6 months or older should get a flu shot annually. The virus changes from year to year, so just because you got a shot last year doesn’t mean you’re protected.
More U.S. adults than ever may have received the flu shot last season, which coincided with the pandemic. “We’re celebrating the fact that we did really well getting people vaccinated against influenza last year,” says Tan. “But the ‘twindemic’ risk of COVID and flu together is still real for the upcoming season. Put the flu vaccine at the top of your list.”
As with the COVID-19 vaccine, there’s still a chance you’ll get the flu after your shot. But if you do, “you’re much less likely to get seriously ill, need hospitalization or die,” says Dr. Schaffner.
About 1 in 3 Americans will get shingles in their lifetime, according to the CDC. And it isn’t fun. “It won’t kill you but will make you absolutely miserable,” says Dr. Schaffner. “Some people will have post-shingles pain that can really influence their quality of life.”
The shingles vaccine — official name recombinant zoster — is recommended for everyone 50 and older. “Get it before you’re 65 and your insurance company will cover it,” Schaffner advises. If you wait, “Medicare may not.” (Learn more about shingles and how to protect yourself here.)
Tdap stands for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. It keeps you safe from all 3.
If you were fully vaccinated as a kid, you would have gotten an earlier version. And if you stepped on a nail or got a nasty cut as an adult, you should’ve had a booster to prevent tetanus. But if you’re not sure, you should get a Tdap now. Adults need a booster every 10 years. And women should get one with each pregnancy.
A whopping 85% of Americans — almost everyone who’s sexually active — will be infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point, according to the CDC. Most of the time the infection goes away on its own, but some can last a long time. And that can lead to certain cancers such as cervical cancer.
Teens and adults ages 15 to 26 will need 3 doses. And up to age 45, you and your doctor should decide together if you need it.
“Let’s say you’re 33 and you’ve been monogamous for a decade, but now you’re single and dating again,” says Tan. “You may want to get it.”
Those letters stand for measles, mumps and rubella, 3 serious diseases that used to affect thousands each year. If you were born before 1957, it’s safe to assume you were exposed naturally. Any time after that, you should receive at least 1 dose. Not sure if you’ve had an MMR? Go for it. It’s perfectly safe, even if you did get a shot growing up.
You probably know this common childhood disease by its other name, chickenpox. If you had it as a child, you don’t need this one. But adults are 25 times more likely than children to die from chickenpox, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. So if you haven’t either had chickenpox or received a varicella vaccine, you should talk to your doctor. “It’s especially important if you’re preparing to start a family,” says Tan.
Pneumococcal bacteria cause the most common type of bacterial pneumonia, among other diseases. The vaccine comes in 2 types: pneumococcal conjugate (PCV13) and pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPSV23). If you’re 65 or older, the CDC recommends you get 1 dose of the PPSV23 vaccine. Under 65? You may still need a dose, depending on underlying conditions — talk to your doctor.
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U.S. COVID-19 vaccination tracker: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Vaccine schedule for adults: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Shingles statistic: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
HPV statistic: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Adults and chickenpox stat: National Foundation for Infectious Diseases