Vaccines for Seniors
By Krisha McCoy, MS | Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Certain childhood vaccines protect you for a lifetime. But you’ll need to get booster doses of others, as well as a few new ones, that are crucial for your health as you age.
Are you up to date on your vaccinations? Vaccines are essential public health tools that have virtually eliminated a number of serious infections, including measles, diphtheria, mumps, smallpox, rubella, polio, and tetanus. Certain vaccines are available today that didn’t exist 50 years ago, and others need to be repeated at certain intervals because your immunity to some diseases can wear off over time.
What Are Vaccines?
Learn About Flu Shots & Where To Get Them. Vaccines contain dead or weakened disease-causing microorganisms. Once you have been exposed to a vaccine, your body’s immune system will produce antibodies that fight the microorganisms, making you immune to a specific disease. Most vaccines are given through a simple injection, usually in your arm; some are given by mouth or nasal spray.
Which Vaccines Do Seniors Need?
Certain vaccines are more important for senior health than others, including:
- Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis booster (Td/Tdap booster). Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, is a serious disease of the nervous system caused when bacteria found in soil, dust, or manure enters the body through a skin lesion. Tetanus leads to death about 10 to 20 percent of the time, and this is a serious threat to older people in particular. Diphtheria is a respiratory disease caused by a bacterial infection that can result in airway obstruction, coma, and death if left untreated. Chances are you have received tetanus shots in the past, but your immunity eventually wears off, so the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you get a tetanus booster once every 10 years.
- Herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine. Herpes zoster, which is also called shingles, is a painful skin rash related to chickenpox that can lead to serious complications and even death. More than 1 million people in the United States develop shingles each year, and this disease most often affects people age 50 and older. The CDC recommends that adults age 60 and over receive one dose of the herpes zoster vaccine, whether or not they have had shingles in the past.
- Influenza vaccine. Commonly called “the flu,” influenza is a contagious illness caused by influenza viruses. Five to 20 percent of the population gets the flu every year. Older people are at the highest risk of developing serious flu complications that require hospitalization; in some cases, the flu can even be fatal. Beginning at age 50, everyone should receive one dose of influenza vaccine every year, preferably between October and November, before the winter flu season starts.
- Pneumococcal (polysaccharide) vaccine. Infection with pneumococcal bacteria is one of the leading causes of death in the United States from a vaccine-preventable disease. Pneumococcal infections are spread through respiratory secretions, like coughing and sneezing. The CDC recommends that people age 65 and older receive one dose of pneumococcal vaccine.
Depending on your individual risk factors, you may need additional vaccines such as:
- Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR)
- Varicella (chickenpox) vaccine
- Hepatitis A vaccine
- Hepatitis B vaccine
- Meningococcal (meningitis) vaccine
However, the risks of getting certain vaccines may outweigh the benefits for people with health problems such as cardiovascular disease, lung disease, diabetes, kidney problems, or a condition that weakens the immune system. So talk with your doctor about the best immunization schedule for you.