by Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher
With our children (or grandchildren or nieces/nephews) all going back to school, we may think we’re all finished thinking about vaccines for a while, but let’s not be too hasty. Adults need vaccines as well, and we’re going to take a look at some of the most important ones to get to keep us healthy whether we’re 20, 95, or somewhere in-between.
Let’s begin with the influenza, or flu, vaccine. Because the flu is so common in the fall and winter months and is potentially so serious, this vaccine is especially important to receive soon – before flu season really kicks in.
Even for individuals who seem to “never get the flu”, the vaccine is important. Some people show few, if any, symptoms from the illness and therefore, think they are fine or have only a mild cold. In reality, they are infected with influenza and are highly contagious to others, and those other people may have a much harder time dealing with the flu. The very young, the aged, or anyone with pre-existing conditions or a compromised immune system are at risk for serious complications or even death from the flu. As a result, the “never get the flu” group should be mindful of their fellow human beings and get vaccinated anyway to help protect others who are more vulnerable to the disease.
There are benefits to receiving the influenza vaccine besides just greater immunity to the illness and the knowledge that you’re also helping to protect others. Scientific studies show a noticeable reduction in cardiac events, like heart attack or stroke, in individuals who have received the flu vaccine.
The flu vaccine tends to “wear off” as the months roll by, and so, it is best to be vaccinated at least yearly. Also, the strains of flu included in the vaccine change each year, so it is best to be vaccinated at least yearly to get “current” protection from the most commonly circulating forms of the illness seen lately.
Some individuals may want to get vaccinated twice during one flu season to maximize immunity. For instance, a person may want to get vaccinated in mid-September and then again in mid-January to see them all the way through the long flu season with maximum immunity in place. This scenario is particularly important to people at high risk for coming into contact with the flu. Health care workers, people who travel extensively for their jobs, or people who are in sales and must constantly be in contact with the public would be a few examples of situations where persons might want to be vaccinated twice during a flu season.
Generally, being vaccinated twice, spaced months apart, is very safe and effective. If you have any special health conditions or previous bad reactions to a vaccine, then by all means, contact your doctor with any questions or concerns before being vaccinated twice, or even once, for the flu or any other disease.
Another important vaccine for adults to receive and keep up-to-date is the tetanus vaccine. Tetanus, also sometimes referred to as “lockjaw”, is caused by a bacterial infection. The infectious bacterium, Clostridium tetani, found in dust, manure, and soil is the culprit behind the disease, whose symptoms feature jaw cramps, muscle spasms, and seizures. Tetanus is a serious disease and requires hospitalization if acquired. It is far better to receive a vaccination every 10 years for life rather than risk getting the disease – unless, of course, a previous tetanus injection has resulted in serious side effects. If so, contact your physician before receiving any further inoculations for tetanus.
The vaccine generally works very well and has contributed greatly to reducing the incidence of tetanus in the United States to near eradication levels.
Next up on the list of needed adult vaccines is the chicken pox (or varicella) vaccine. If an adult has somehow missed getting chicken pox or the vaccine as a child, he/she should get vaccinated as soon as possible. Avoiding chicken pox saves a person from at least a miserable itching and painful rash, fever, and general feeling of being unwell. Also, if the chicken pox virus never gets a good hold on a person, his/her chances of ever getting shingles, a more serious condition, is hugely diminished.
The varicella (chicken pox) vaccine needs to be given in two doses to be 98% effective at preventing any form of the disease, and 100% effective at preventing severe cases of illness. Another positive trait of varicella vaccine is that it can prevent disease if received within 72 hours of exposure to a chicken pox infected person.
After taking a look at chicken pox, it only makes sense to move into an examination of the shingles vaccine. Shingles is a disease originating from the chicken pox virus, gone dormant in a patient’s body for years, even decades, and then reactivated by some stimulus (or stimuli) into a more serious, painful, blistering rash which can lead to scarring and even vision loss. Furthermore, shingles can lead to a debilitating chronic pain syndrome that can cripple a person for life with on-going serious pain. Shingles is more prevalent in older people, and as such, shingles is often errantly thought of as only an “old person’s” disease. The all too frequent assumption is that only senior citizens (65+) need to be vaccinated. In reality, anyone harboring the chicken pox virus in his/her body can develop shingles at any age, given the right stimulus and set of circumstances.
Shingles vaccines are recommended for everyone 50+ and can be given to patients younger than 50 who have extenuating circumstances that put them at greater risk for developing the disease. Because the shingles disease puts a victim at greater risk for stroke and heart attack as well, there is even more reason to be vaccinated. The older Zostavax vaccine is about 50% effective, while the newer Shingrix is about 90% effective. Contact a doctor or pharmacist for a complete list of vaccine ingredients to make sure there are no known (for you personally) allergens in the vaccine before getting it. This advice goes for any vaccine, not just the shingles vaccines.
Now, what about the measles, the recent outbreaks, and what to do about adults? Measles (and rubella) were largely considered eradicated until recently, when, following a time of lower vaccination rates, they both reappeared, measles more dramatically so due to its extremely high contagion factor.
Many adults may be at some degree of risk. If an adult was vaccinated between 1963 and 1989, he/she may no longer have immunity. Some adults may never have been vaccinated as youngsters; certainly, this group should be immunized. The group of adults receiving vaccines between 1963 and 1989 should also consider being vaccinated again and should consult with their doctors about an appropriate course of action. In most cases, a “re-vaccination” is very beneficial with minor side effects. As always, there will be a few exceptions; so, consult with a doctor before proceeding.
Travel plans to a part of the United States where there have been known outbreaks of measles or travel outside the U.S. increases the need for a measles vaccine.
Next, let’s take a look at the pneumococcus vaccine to help prevent pneumonia (and meningitis in some cases). The vaccine is especially important for patients 65 and older, who due to weaker immune systems, are more likely to develop pneumonia. That said, most people aged 19 to 64 years will also benefit from a pneumonia vaccine, especially if they have any other pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible to infections.
Anyone of any age can develop pneumonia; it is a serious disease that is best to avoid, and the vaccine is one very helpful weapon in the fight for continued good health.
Lastly, let’s look briefly at three vaccines that have more “specialized” adult audiences, but are still important to consider getting. The vaccine for HPV, or Human Papillomavirus is one such option and is most often thought of as suitable for pre-teens, teens, or people in their early twenties (people of limited or no sexual experience). The HPV virus is responsible for causing genital warts on the genitals, mouth, and rectum, and although this “annoying” disease may clear up on its own for many people, some folks will eventually develop cancer from the virus.
In reality, anyone who has not already come into contact with the HPV virus could benefit from the vaccine, even if they’re much older than the typical patient receiving the inoculation. For instance, a man or woman who has been in a long-term monogamous relationship for two or three decades and then experiences a divorce or death of partner may want to get the vaccine before becoming sexually active with someone new. The situation is worth talking over with a doctor and making an informed choice.
Another disease that can be sexually transmitted or transmitted through close contact with contaminated blood products is Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B attacks the liver, causing cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure. This vaccine is recommended for any and all health care workers and for anyone who is not in a monogamous sexual relationship.
Finally, the vaccine for meningococcus, the microbe responsible for some types of meningitis and some instances of sepsis is recommended for health care workers, adults with particular medical conditions, and people traveling to sub-Saharan countries.
Meningitis can be either bacterial or viral in nature. College students are at particular risk for meningitis and should consider vaccination before moving away from family and friends and being “alone” where the fast moving disease can kill within as little as 24 hours in some cases. Consult a physician for the best advice on avoiding this deadly disease, whether bacterial or viral in type.
A Concluding Comment:
Before traveling to any foreign country, an adult should check on that destination country’s disease risks and vaccination requirements, if any, and be vaccinated accordingly before departure.
Also, when receiving any vaccine, plan on getting plenty of sleep each night for a few days in a row after getting the inoculation. The added rest will allow the immune system to more fully respond to the vaccine and improve immunity to the disease in question. Better protection will result from full nights’ rest for a few days. Vaccine side effects will also be lighter.
Be proactive and get appropriately vaccinated. You could save your own life or that of another person.
Join us in this space on or about September 16, 2019 for an examination of Alzheimer’s disease.