4 Physician Tips for Older Adults About Vaccines
As a primary care doctor, I help my adult patients manage their chronic diseases, treat their acute illnesses, and help them figure out the right specialist to see for specific conditions. I also spend a fair amount of my time keeping folks healthy before they get sick, which includes screening as well as preventing illnesses—that’s where vaccines come into play.
The benefits of vaccines are clear, and the consequences of not receiving them, like contracting pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, or influenza, are severe. There are, however, many questions surrounding vaccines, and my patients are often unsure of some of the details. Here’s what I want patients to know.
It’s really hard to predict whether the flu season will be mild or severe, but regardless, it’s crucial to get the immunization. Even if the flu shot doesn’t fully prevent the strain of flu you’ve contracted, it will lessen the severity of your illness and can spare you a hospital stay. Elderly people, people with compromised immune systems, like those with cancer or diabetes, and people with chronic lung diseases like asthma and emphysema are especially encouraged to get the flu shot. And the best time to do it is in the fall before the winter flu season begins.
All vaccinations can wane in efficacy over time, which means the immune system can forget about how to fight that disease. The Tdap vaccine is considered a “booster” because it reminds (or boosts) the immune system to keep its troops ready to fight in case tetanus, diphtheria or pertussis enters the body. Most Americans receive an initial vaccine against these diseases as children, but we recommend all adults get at least one Tdap booster in their lifetime. Part of this is obviously to protect themselves against these diseases, but it’s also important to protect the children they come into contact with.
Tetanus and diphtheria are extremely rare in the United States; however, pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough, has been on the rise in recent decades. Pertussis, a respiratory infection, tends to be mild in adults, but it can be quite severe in children. The vast majority of deaths due to pertussis each year are unfortunately in babies less than a year old. Babies don’t begin receiving pertussis vaccinations until they’re two months old, and although vaccinating their mothers during pregnancy can help, infants are left without a lot of protection against what can be a deadly infection. That’s why it’s so important for older adults like grandparents to get a Tdap shot at least two weeks before being around infants. Without knowing it, adults can serve as the reservoir for transmitting the disease to children and infants, so if you haven’t had a Tdap booster in the last 10 years, schedule an appointment with your doctor a few weeks before meeting any small babies.
Most people think of tetanus as occurring after you step on a rusty nail, and for good reason. When the tetanus bacteria enters an open wound, it can cause the nervous system to malfunction and lead to painful muscle spasms in the jaw, spine, and limbs, among other problems. Fortunately, tetanus is practically eliminated in the U.S., but in many developing countries, it’s still quite prevalent. Worldwide, it’s one of the most common neurological diseases. If you’re an adventurous traveler like some of my patients who go hiking in southern Asia, Africa, or South America, then it would really be to your benefit to get a tetanus booster every 10 years.
Pneumonia is an infection that affects the lungs and can cause cough, chest pain, fever, and breathing problems. Especially for older adults, it can turn into a very serious and sometimes deadly disease. Fortunately, today we have pneumonia vaccines that not only reduce your chances of contracting the infection, but also diminish the effects of the disease if you do get it. People can die from pneumonia when the bacteria travels outside the lungs and into the bloodstream, sometimes even to the brain, but if you get vaccinated against it, your chances of that happening are significantly less.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It can be hard to understand why you need to take time out of your busy day, pay a co-pay, and subject yourself to a painful shot, especially if you’re healthy. Unfortunately, by the time you’re sick, it’s too late to do these preventative strategies. Getting vaccines is worth the trouble. I commend my patients for coming in for annual check-ups and keeping their vaccinations up to date, even if it sometimes feels unnecessary. Those appointments are often what keeps them healthy, out of the hospital, and away from diseases that could significantly affect their lives and the lives of those around them.