Adult Immunizations: Are You Protected?

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What’s the greatest medical development of the last century? Open-immunizations have done more good for more people than any other medical intervention,” agrees Ricardo U. Sorenson, MD, chair of the department of pediatrics, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

Vaccinations have essentially wiped out diseases that once infected hundreds of thousands of people every year and killed tens of thousands. Yet many of us take immunizations for granted and may assume that, once we’re adults, we don’t need them anymore.

We do. While we may outgrow our need for booster chairs, we never outgrow our need for booster shots. So if you suspect you’re not up-to-date with your vaccinations, it’s time for a checkup.

Why Get Immunized?

Vaccines don’t get the credit they deserve — a testament to their success. Vaccines have so effectively wiped out many diseases that these illnesses seem as extinct as dinosaurs.

“How many people do you know who have had diphtheria or and polio. It’s tragic.”

Why Do Adults Need Vaccinations?

Many vaccines work by introducing a dead or weakened version of a germ into your body, allowing your body to become familiar with it. Your immune system then reacts by creating antibody proteins custom-designed to fight that particular microbe. Then, if you ever come into contact with the real germ, the antibodies attack it. This is how vaccines grant you immunity.

However, that immunity doesn’t necessarily last forever. Those antibodies may fade away with time.

“After age 30 or so, the potency of immunity wanes,” Wasserman says. “In the same way that your muscle strength fades after middle age, the vaccine immunity that protected you when you were young loses its strength when you’re in your 40s, and 50s, and 60s.”

Happily, the solution is simple: get a booster shot. This is a way of reminding your immune system how to fight the microbe.

In addition to boosters, you need other vaccines as you get older and your risk of getting certain diseases increases.

Vaccinations Benefit Others

Obviously, getting a vaccination protects you from getting sick, but vaccines have a greater benefit: they protect the people around you from getting sick.

It’s a phenomenon called “herd immunity.” If most people in a group are vaccinated against a disease, even the people who aren’t vaccinated are much less likely to get it.

This reason for vaccination is important, because vaccines can be dangerous for some people. For instance, some are too sick to handle a vaccine or are allergic to it, but if the people around them are vaccinated, they are more likely to be safe. “It’s an indirect way of protecting them,” says Wasserman.

There’s also a flip side. If you live with someone with a compromised immune system from a disease or its treatment — like — tell your doctor before you get vaccinated. The weakened version of a virus in a vaccine could spread from the vaccinated person to the ill family member. Sometimes, even the weakened virus is dangerous for a person with a compromised immune system.

Which Immunizations Do Adults Need?

The vaccinations you need depend on your age, health, and vaccination history. But here’s a rundown of some of the common vaccines adults should get.

Future Adult Vaccines

In addition to the vaccinations above, a few vaccines are likely to be available soon.

  • shinglesZostavax — is actually just a double dose of the chickenpox vaccine. As of May 2006 it has not yet been FDA-approved.

    “The initial report on the shingles vaccine is very encouraging,” says Wasserman. “Shingles is a terrible disease, especially for older people.”

    Many other vaccines are in much earlier stages of development, including:

    • Strep: Some preliminary research into a vaccine against Group A streptococcus shows promise. One study found that, in a group of 28 healthy adults, the vaccine seemed safe and appeared to trigger an immune response.
    • herpes virus that causes cold sores the vaccine had no effect. Strangely, the vaccine had no effect in men.

Taking Charge of Your Health

Given the importance of regular adult vaccinations it’s crucial to keep track of your immunization history and stay current with your vaccinations.

Unfortunately, many people don’t. They simply assume their doctor will tell them when they need a shot, but that’s not necessarily the case. Most people change doctors many times in their lives and their current doctor may have no idea about their immunization history.

So from now on, make a note when you get a vaccination. If don’t know which vaccinations you’ve had recently, talk to your doctor. To be on the safe side, it may be time for you to roll up that sleeve, stick out your arm, and wince.