In The Spotlight

Getting Immunized

Contributed by Dr. Linda Kinsinger
National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (NCP)

Getting immunized is one way to stay healthy. Immunizations (also known as vaccines) prevent disease and save lives. Vaccines are one of the most important advancements of the past 100 years. Smallpox and polio no longer exist in the U.S. because of the vaccines. Also, childhood diseases such as measles, diphtheria and whooping cough are now rare thanks to vaccines.

Children receive many vaccines from birth to age 12. Some vaccines are given only to adults. Thousands of adults die or get hospitalized each year from diseases that vaccines can prevent.

The vaccines that are recommended most commonly for adults protect against: influenza (flu), pneumonia, tetanus, human papillomavirus, and shingles.

Here is a brief summary of each adult vaccine.

Flu Vaccine

The flu is a highly contagious infection caused by a virus. It is a serious illness that causes more than 226,000 hospitalizations and about 36,000 deaths each year in the U.S. Seasonal or "regular" flu usually occurs in the fall, winter, and spring. The symptoms of seasonal flu include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue. In older adults, the flu can be life-threatening.

You should get an annual seasonal flu shot each year if you wish to be protected against seasonal flu. In addition, be sure to ask your provider about a flu shot if you:

  • Are 50 years of age or older
  • Have certain chronic health problems
  • Are a healthcare worker
  • Live in a long-term care facility or nursing home
  • Are a woman who will be pregnant during flu season
  • Have any condition that makes it hard to breathe or swallow

Seasonal flu shots are given in the fall and winter. Check with your VA facility as to when flu shots will be available. For information see Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards.

As each day passes, we learn more about the H1N1 virus, a form of influenza virus that is new. Most people will have little or no natural immunity to this virus. It is possible that vaccination against the H1N1 virus will be made available this fall. To stay informed on this and other H1N1 information, go to the main Federal source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards.

There are things that you can do to help prevent getting both the seasonal flu and the new H1N1 flu:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Keep your hands clean (wash them with soap and water, or use alcohol-based hand cleaners)
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth
  • Stay home when you are sick and limit contact with others
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Stay informed about seasonal flu and H1N1 flu

Pneumonia Vaccine

This vaccine can protect you against complications from infection with a specific bacteria that causes pneumonia. This bacteria also causes other serious illnesses such as infections in the blood system and in the lining of the brain (meningitis). You should get this vaccination if you:

  • Are 65 or older
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Have certain chronic health problems
  • Have active cancers such as Hodgkin's disease, lymphoma, leukemia, or multiple myeloma
  • Have had your spleen removed
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Have asthma

HPV Vaccine

This is a new vaccine for women only. This vaccine protects against the 4 major types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection. HPV vaccine can prevent most genital warts and most cases of cervical cancer. It is given in a series of three shots over a six-month period. You should consider getting this vaccine if you:

  • Are a woman who is 26 years or younger
  • Are not pregnant

Shingles Vaccine

This is also a newer vaccine. Shingles is a disease caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. Symptoms of shingles include skin rash, blisters, and pain. The pain can last for months to years after an episode of shingles. You are more likely to get shingles as you get older. You should consider getting this vaccine if you:

  • Are age 60 and older
  • Do not have certain chronic medical conditions that would make the vaccine unsafe for you such as a weakened immune system. This can be because of HIV/AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system, treatment with drugs that affect the immune system, such as steroids, cancer treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy, or a history of cancer affecting the bone or blood, such as leukemia or lymphoma.
  • Do not have an allergy to any component of the vaccine
  • Have not had a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin

Talk with your doctor about whether you would benefit from this vaccine.

Tdap Vaccine

These are combination vaccines. Tdap provides protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). The Td part of the vaccine provides protection against tetanus and diptheria only. Adults should receive a booster vaccine to protect against tetanus and diphtheria every 10 years throughout their lifetime. If you are between the ages of 19 and 65, one of these boosters should be with the Tdap vaccine. This will also provide added protection against whooping cough.

It is important to get immunized to protect yourself. Talk with your health care team to see if you are up to date with your vaccines. You can find more information and other resources on the VA National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Disease Prevention (NCP) site. You can get information about vaccines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Learn More

Immunization (Medline Plus)

Inmunización o vacunación (Medline Plus) (en Español)

New Vaccines Help Protect You (Medline Plus Magazine)

Shots for Safety (NIH National Institutes on Aging)

 

Updated/Reviewed: June 30, 2009