A Grown-Up Talk about Vaccines

A Grown-Up Talk about Vaccines

Whooping cough. Mumps. Measles. Chicken pox. They’re not just for kids anymore—and neither are the vaccines that protect against them. While there’s some push back against childhood vaccines thanks to misinformation from certain presidential candidates and B-list celebrities, recent reports show that grown-ups are the real slackers.

That’s dangerous. Vaccine-preventable diseases kill tens of thousands of North American adults each year and land plenty more in the hospital. We’re talking about pneumococcal pneumonia and related diseases which kill more than 45,000 adults; shingles, triggered by the chickenpox virus, which affects 1 million annually and often leaves behind excruciating nerve pain. Measles and mumps, which can cause brain damage in adults (if you were born after 1956, you’re probably not immune). Getting infected can also spread diseases like whooping cough to unvaccinated babies.

Yet tens of millions of grown-ups (you?) are behind on their shots. In one recent CDC study, half of older adults skipped tetanus shots that protect against rare but deadly lockjaw and 76 percent skipped the shingles vaccine. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that more than one in six international travelers don’t have all the vaccines they need. That boosts the risk for exposure to hepatitis A, via tainted food and water and for exposure to the measles. Half of all US measles outbreaks can be traced to the illness picked up outside our borders.

So here’s what you need to know.

Myth: “I got all the vaccines I need as a kid.”

Fact: You probably need some new ones—and a couple of boosters. If your doc doesn’t bring it up, ask about which shots you really need. In general, all adults need an annual flu shot; a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) shot or booster every ten years; older adults also need vaccines against shingles. There are two pneumonia vaccines; ask your doc if you need one or both). Younger women and men should also get the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine and, if you didn’t get them as a kid, you likely also need vaccines against chicken pox, hepatitis (A and B) and mumps, measles and rubella (MMR). Ask about the meningococcal vaccine, too.

Myth: Only doctors give vaccines.

Fact: Pharmacies do too. Don’t want to spend the time or money on a doctor’s visit for vaccines? Get your shots where you shop. Pharmacies and quick-care clinics in all 50 states are authorized to provide many adult vaccines. Call ahead to find out which ones are available in your local drugstore and whether or not you need a prescription.

Myth: The side effects are scary.

Fact: Side effects are rare. If you have a weakened immune system or have had an allergic reaction to a vaccine, there are some you should skip—and others where certain formulations may be a better choice for you. But it’s important to know that the risk for a serious reaction is very small, especially compared to the protection vaccines provide. For instance, the pneumococcal vaccine cuts your risk for infection by as much as 70 percent. And the shingles shot cuts risk for a blistery outbreak by 90 percent or more, and reduces your odds for nerve pain by about 90 percent. Overall, the chance of gaining benefits from a vaccination is 40,000 times greater than the chance of incurring a serious side effect.

Myth: Vaccines are expensive.

Fact: Most are covered by insurance plans and Medicare—especially if you get them at the recommended age. Talk to your insurance company. If you don’t have insurance, talk to your doc or call your state department of health about free clinics in your area. It’s worth the effort!

Myth: It’s gonna hurt!

Fact: Maybe not. Studies prove that distracting yourself (bring your headphones and listen to music) or breathing deeply and relaxing your muscles just before the jab reduces pain significantly. Drugstore numbing creams containing lidocaine, applied beforehand (follow package directions), can also help.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

Why You Probably Need the Tdap Shot
Why You Probably Need the Tdap Shot
You put in the extra effort to keep your kids and grandkids healthy -- you make sure they get nutritious meals, safe toys and regular checkups. But th...
Read More
What are the vaccinations recommended for adults?
It is recommended that adults get vaccinations to protect against the following: influenza (flu) ...
More Answers
The 5 Vaccines Adults Need
The 5 Vaccines Adults NeedThe 5 Vaccines Adults NeedThe 5 Vaccines Adults NeedThe 5 Vaccines Adults Need
Protect your health and stay well by staying up-to-date on these important adult vaccines.
Start Slideshow
Are Researchers Working on a More Effective Type of Vaccine?
Are Researchers Working on a More Effective Type of Vaccine?