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7 Essential Adult Vaccines You Need to Know About

Vaccines save lives. Find out if you’re on schedule.

Medically reviewed in December 2022

Updated on December 9, 2022

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With the spotlight often on childhood vaccines, it’s a common misconception that adults are fully protected. 

But there are several vaccines that most people need at specific times throughout adulthood, according to Richard Levine, MD, with Virtua Health in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Read on to learn when you need these shots—and why they’re so important.

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Flu vaccine

When to get it: Once a year, between September and January (but it’s okay to get it later if you miss that window). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the best time to get it is by the end of October.

Why it matters: “Even if you’re young and healthy, the flu can knock you down for around three to five days,” says Dr. Levine. “It feels terrible, and it can take important time away from work, school, and caring for your family. And you really don’t want to spread it to other people, especially the elderly or little children.”

The flu is a serious illness; thousands of people die from it each year. Even if you assume you’d bounce back from it quickly, protecting yourself protects your community. This one act could save the lives of people you love.

Expert tip: Don’t believe the hype—you cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. There’s no live virus in the shot, which would be necessary for you to actually catch it.

“People do sometimes feel sick shortly afterwards, but it’s not because you have the flu,” Levine explains. "It can rev up your immune system a little so that you feel under the weather. But it's an immune response, not an infection, and it usually lasts no more than a day."

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Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine

When to get it: You should have had your first Tdap around age 11 or 12. If you didn’t, tell your healthcare provider (HCP) so you can receive it right away. Then, get a tetanus and diphtheria (Td) booster every 10 years after your initial Tdap.

If you’re pregnant, you should get vaccinated, usually during the third trimester. Other parents and close adult relatives, including grandparents, should be up to date, too. Get the Tdap two weeks before seeing the baby if you haven’t had the shot before. “Babies don’t get immunized against pertussis until six months of age, so this offers protection,” Levine says.

If you come into contact with soil contaminated with feces, get a tetanus booster if it's been between 5 and 10 years since your last one. If it's been less than that, you don't need one.

Why it matters: Tetanus and diphtheria are rare in the United States today thanks to vaccination. That means most of us have never seen their alarming effects. But they cause severe symptoms and can lead to death.

“Tetanus paralyzes the jaw and neck muscles, so that you can’t swallow or breathe,” says Levine. “It's not very common, but it's very deadly, so vaccination is key.” Diphtheria makes it difficult to breathe and swallow as well, and can lead to heart failure, paralysis, and death.

“With pertussis, you’re going to have a terrible cough that can last for weeks, but you’ll most likely recover,” he says. “However, it could be catastrophic if you spread it to babies or the elderly, who might not be fully immunized. It still kills people.”

Expert tip: Medicare typically won’t cover the Td booster if you get it in a healthcare provider’s (HCP’s) office. Ask your HCP to write a prescription for it instead. Your pharmacy can then fill and administer it and Medicare’s more likely to cover it.

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Chickenpox vaccine

When to get it: Typically, the first dose is given between 1 and 2 years of age, and the second dose is given between 4 and 6 years of age. If you never received it—the vaccine was only introduced in 1995—and you’ve never had the chickenpox, you should receive two doses, at least 28 days apart.

Why it matters: You might associate the chickenpox with itchy red bumps and staying home from school. But this virus can cause more damage than you might think, including:

  • Possible infections or lifelong scars
  • Dehydration
  • Bleeding issues
  • Blood infections/sepsis
  • Serious complications like brain damage, pneumonia, and, in rare cases, death 

Expert tip: “The older you are when you get chickenpox, the worse it’s likely to be, so if you’re not immune as an adult, get vaccinated,” warns Levine.

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Shingles vaccine

When to get it: Two shots at age 50, two to six months apart. The CDC specifically recommends the shingles vaccine Shingrix. People should get it even if they’ve had shingles before or received the previous version of the vaccine. People who are 19 years or older can also get the vaccine if they have a weakened immune system. 

Why it matters: Shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus, called varicella zoster. If you were exposed to it as a child, it can reactivate years later in the form of shingles.

Shingles causes an extremely painful rash that typically appears in a band-like formation on one side of your body. It’s associated with fevers, body aches, and chills. It can also lead to complications like post-herpetic neuralgia, or nerve pain that lingers in the area long after the rash has cleared.

Expert tip: Get vaccinated whether you’ve had chickenpox or not. About 99 percent of Americans over age 40 test positive for varicella zoster, even if they don’t remember ever having had chickenpox. If you’ve already had shingles, you should get vaccinated, too. Doing so lowers your risk of experiencing another outbreak.

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Pneumonia vaccine

When to get it: After age 65. The CDC also recommends the vaccine for children under the age of 5. If you’re a smoker, get the Pneumovax23 vaccine between ages 19 and 64. You might be eligible for the vaccine if you’re at high risk for pneumonia due to a chronic illness like asthma, diabetes, HIV, or heart disease. If you have a weak immune system or a chronic illness, ask your HCP about getting vaccinated before 65.

Why it matters: Pneumonia is a serious lung infection, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people in 2020. It causes fevers, body aches, headaches, and makes it difficult to breathe. It can lead to dangerous complications like bloodstream infections or meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord.

Expert tip: Some people might need a booster after age 65 if they’re especially prone to infection. “The current guideline suggests you get Prevnar 13 when you hit 65. Usually that’s once in a lifetime, but there are certain conditions like cancer or being on dialysis that might call for another shot,” says Levine. "If you want Medicare to pay for it, get the Pneumovax 23 vaccine one year after receiving Prevnar 13."

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Measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR)

When to get it: Children should get one dose between 12 and 15 months and another between ages 4 and 6 years. If not, at least one dose should be taken as an adult if you were born later than 1956 (unless you know you’ve had all three of the diseases it covers).

Why it matters: Measles, mumps, and rubella are all serious illnesses that spread easily through the air. Measles can lead to seizures and brain damage. Complications of mumps include deafness and meningitis. Rubella, or German measles, can cause birth defects or miscarriage, so it’s especially important for people of childbearing age to make sure they’re covered.

Expert tip: The MMR vaccine does not cause autism and it doesn’t contain mercury.

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Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine

When to get it: The ideal time to receive the HPV vaccine is between ages 9 and 12. The younger you complete this three-dose vaccine series, the more effective it’s likely to be. If you miss that window, it’s approved for everyone until age 26, though receiving it at older ages may not be as effective for reducing the risk of cancer. In certain circumstances, an HCP may recommend being vaccinated up until age 45.

Why it matters: HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. It causes genital warts, against which the vaccine protects. “This is also the first vaccine that actually helps prevent cancer, which is amazing,” says Levine. “HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, rectum, and the oropharynx, an area that includes the back of the throat, base of the tongue, and tonsils.”

Expert tip: Get vaccinated even if you already have HPV. Why? There are at least 150 different strains of the virus. The vaccine protects against strains you may not have.

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Some people need extra protection

Though COVID-19 vaccines continue to evolve and improve, it’s clear that vaccination can reduce risk of serious illness and death from the infection. All adults and children eligible for the vaccines are strongly encouraged to get the shot and the latest boosters. Older adults, people with compromised immune systems, and those with preexisting conditions (including cancer, heart disease, respiratory conditions, and diabetes) are at particular risk from COVID and should stay up to date on vaccinations and boosters.

There are exceptions to every recommendation. Some people shouldn’t get certain vaccines due to allergies or their medical history. Always check with your HCP before receiving a new shot.

Furthermore, you might need additional vaccines if you’re:

  • Traveling to another country
  • Pregnant
  • Working in healthcare or childcare

Take this simple quiz from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help determine which vaccines you should receive based on your profile. 

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently asked influenza (flu) questions: 2022-2023 season. Published November 21, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza (flu): Disease Burden of Flu. Last reviewed October 4, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine information statement. Published August 6, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccines and Preventable Diseases: Pertussis: Summary of Vaccine Recommendations. Page last reviewed January 22, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pregnancy and Vaccination: Vaccines for Family and Caregivers. Page last reviewed November 9, 2021.
Piedmont.org. When to get a tetanus shot after an injury. Accessed December 8, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus. Page last reviewed May 13, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus: Tetanus Vaccination. Page last reviewed May 13, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diphtheria. Page last reviewed September 9, 2022.
Medicare.gov. Tdap shots. Accessed December 8, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox vaccination: What everyone should know. Published April 28, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (Varicella): Complications. Last reviewed April 28, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumococcal vaccination: What everyone should know. Published January 24, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccines and Preventable Diseases: Pneumococcal Vaccination: Summary of Who and When to Vaccinate. Page last reviewed January 24, 2022.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Pneumonia: Causes and Risk Factors. Last updated on March 24, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles vaccination: What everyone should know. Published May 24, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination: What Everyone Should Know. Published January 26, 2021.
University of Michigan. Measles, Mumps, & Rubella. Accessed December 9, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles (Rubeola): For Healthcare Providers. Page last reviewed November 5, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mumps: Complications of Mumps. Page last reviewed March 8, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rubella (German Measles, Three-Day Measles). Page last reviewed December 31, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV vaccine. Published July 23, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19: Overview of COVID-19 Vaccines. Updated November 1, 2022.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. HPV Vaccine Age Limit: You Might Not Be Too Old — What You Should Know. June 23, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021. Page last reviewed July 22, 2021.

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