"I'm Over 65 – What Shots Do I Need?"

August Is National Immunization Awareness Month.

Senior woman gets a flu shot

The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in history — the global influenza pandemic. The older members of your family might be able to tell you of loved ones who perished during the "Spanish flu" that took the lives of 50 million people before it had run its course.

Today, immunizations can protect us from deadly diseases. Yet many seniors think that immunizations are only for children. This is not the case. Here are the answers to some common questions older adults ask:

Q: I'm a senior. Why do I need to be immunized?

Our immune systems can fight off diseases — sometimes. But not always. And as we grow older, our immune systems weaken. We're more likely to catch dangerous diseases, and if we do, we're at higher risk of serious complications and death.

Q: I'll take my chances and skip my shots. How could that hurt?

When we're vaccinated, we not only protect ourselves, but also people who can't be vaccinated, such as young babies and people with certain health conditions. And the more people who are immunized, the fewer opportunities diseases have to spread. The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that each year, up to 50,000 adults in the U.S. die from diseases that could have been prevented by vaccines.

Q: How do vaccines work?

The ALA describes it like this: "As a preventive healthcare measure, vaccines work by teaching the body's immune system to recognize and defend against harmful viruses or bacteria before getting an infection, and reduce the chance of getting certain infectious diseases." In other words, when a germ makes us sick, our immune system remembers it and fights it off next time — but with immunization, we're prepared even at first exposure!

Q: Are vaccines safe?

Some celebrity bloggers and charlatans spread rumors about the supposed dangers of vaccines. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Vaccines are thoroughly tested before licensing and are carefully monitored even after they are licensed to ensure that they are very safe." Side effects and allergies are rare and usually temporary.

Q: Which vaccines are recommended for seniors?

These immunizations are recommended for almost all older adults:

  • Tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis. Tetanus (sometimes called "lockjaw") and diphtheria are severe, often fatal diseases. Pertussis ("whooping cough") causes spasms of severe coughing. The vaccines for these three diseases are given in different combinations; your healthcare provider will determine which type is recommended.
  • Pneumococcal pneumonia. The ALA reports that bacterial pneumonia can cause a high fever, sweating, shaking, chills, coughing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and chest pain. It can damage the lungs, brain, hearing and eyesight. Adults older than 65 should receive the pneumococcal vaccination, which normally consists of two shots given at an interval.
  • Shingles. Shingles causes a painful, blistering rash that lasts for several weeks. Some people — most of them seniors — will develop debilitating pain that can last for a long time. The vaccine is recommended for people aged 50 and older. A new, more effective type of shingles vaccine called Shingrix now may be recommended, even for people who have already received the earlier type. Talk to your doctor about the shingles shot that's right for you.
  • Annual flu vaccine. Seasonal influenza — “the flu” — can be a serious illness for older adults. They are the population most likely to get it, and make up 90 percent of people who die from the effects of the disease. Unlike the case with other recommended vaccines, we need to get a flu shot annually, because the viruses that cause the flu are different every year. A newer, high-dosage shot usually is recommended for people older than 65.
  • Other vaccines. People with certain health problems, immunization histories and lifestyles may need additional vaccines. These might include the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) shot, and vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B and for meningococcal disease.

Q: What if I will be traveling abroad?

If you are planning a trip out of the country, talk to your doctor about vaccines that can protect you from diseases you would normally not encounter in the U.S. Depending on your destination, these vaccines might include those for yellow fever, typhoid, polio, cholera and Japanese encephalitis. Visit the Travelers' Health section of the CDC website to learn more.

Q: Last year the flu shot wasn't very effective, so why should I get one?

Some years the flu shot almost perfectly targets the strains of the flu that spread around the globe. Other years, the researchers don't knock it out of the ballpark. Yet in April 2018, the National Academy of Sciences noted that the effectiveness of the flu shot in a given season is less important than the number of people who get the shot! They found that even if the vaccine were to be only 20 percent effective, it could save more than 60,000 lives each year, as well as millions of hospitalizations and a whole lot of miserable days for 20 million people. Getting vaccinated is something we do for ourselves, our families and our communities. And remember, if you get your flu shot but come down with the flu anyway, you're likely to experience a milder case, with fewer complications.

Q: What if I can't remember which vaccines I've had?

It's important to keep an up-to-date record of immunizations. If you've gone to the same doctor for a long time, the office will have that record. A previous doctor can send your old records to a new doctor. But if you need to start from scratch, look for a "shot record" — maybe it's in your old papers or your baby book. If you can't find your personal record, your doctor may recommend that you repeat some vaccines to be on the safe side; this is not harmful.

Talk to your doctor about the immunizations that are right for you. Roll up your sleeve for better health!

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.