Adult Vaccine Basics
Mar 22, 2023 | Family Medicine | Share:
If you’ve ever had kids (or been a kid yourself), you know that vaccines are just a part of life. The childhood vaccine schedule has protected countless children from dangerous infectious diseases and drastically reduced rates of childhood mortality.
But vaccines aren’t just for kids: adults also need vaccines to keep them healthy. But with everything else on your mind, it can be hard to know what vaccines you need (and when).
Our guide to vaccines is designed to help you learn more about the vaccines most adults need and the diseases they prevent.
Why Vaccines are Important
Vaccines have gotten a bit of a bad reputation in the past few years, but it’s important to remember that traditional vaccines are safe, effective, and save lives. In fact, vaccines have been in use for over 200 years to protect individuals from deadly, infectious diseases.
Most vaccines use either a weakened or an inactivated form of a virus or bacteria to generate an immune response in an individual. This immune response is mild and in many cases, you won’t experience any symptoms. After vaccination, your body is trained to recognize and fight off the pathogen when you encounter it in the wild.
Vaccines have saved countless lives and have been responsible for the elimination of several deadly illnesses. Smallpox, which was one of the most deadly diseases in the world, has been eradicated through the use of vaccines. Additionally, no cases of wild polio have originated in the United States since the late 1970s.1 Vaccines have also vastly reduced the incidence rates of other illnesses such as measles, tetanus, and diphtheria.2
Recommended Vaccines for Adults
The childhood vaccine schedule is designed to provide adequate protection against many serious or life-threatening illnesses. While many of the vaccines you get in childhood provide lasting protection throughout your life, there are a few vaccines that most adults need.
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a respiratory virus that is highly contagious and spreads through respiratory droplets. The influenza virus is responsible for millions of infections each year. In the 2022-23 flu season, the CDC estimates that there have been 26 million illnesses, 290,000 hospitalizations, and 18,000 deaths from the flu virus in the United States.3
Patients should get the flu vaccine every year before the start of flu season. (In Alabama, flu season usually lasts from November to May, but you can get the flu at any time of year.) You should plan to get your annual flu shot each year before flu season begins, but in 2022, flu season was earlier than usual. Talk with your primary care doctor before flu season begins to plan the best time to get your flu shot.
Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis) Vaccine
The Tdap vaccine is a combined vaccine for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.
- Tetanus, also known as lockjaw, can cause paralysis or even death after exposure to the tetanus toxin.
- Diphtheria causes serious illness in the nose and throat that can cause respiratory problems and inflammation of the heart. Diphtheria can lead to serious illness and death in both children and adults.
- Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory illness. While it initially presents as an ordinary cold, a severe cough develops that can last for weeks or months. Pertussis is particularly dangerous for babies and infants.
While the Tdap vaccine is part of the pediatric vaccine schedule, it’s important for adults as well. Pregnant women should get a dose of the vaccine during every pregnancy since this vaccine extends protection to their newborn infant before they are able to receive the vaccine themselves. Other adults should get a Tdap booster every ten years.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chicken pox. After a chickenpox infection, this virus lays dormant in your body; however, it can be reactivated later in life to initiate a shingles infection. Shingles causes a painful rash located on one side of your body. You may also experience other symptoms such as headache, fever, or fatigue. Lingering nerve pain may exist after you recover from a shingles infection.
Adults over the age of 50 should get two doses of the shingles vaccine, but immunocompromised adults may need it at an earlier age.
HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) Vaccine
HPV, or the Human Papilloma Virus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV can cause genital warts, but it can also spread to others when there are no symptoms. Strains of HPV can also cause several types of cancers, including cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine is often given to preteen boys and girls, but if you didn’t get it when you were in your teens, you can get it until you’re 26. Although the HPV vaccine does not treat the virus, you can still get the vaccine if you’ve already been infected since it can prevent future infection from other strains of HPV. Adults receive the HPV vaccine in a 3-dose series.
The pneumococcal vaccine targets bacterial pneumonia caused by Streptococcus pneumonia. Pneumonia is a treatable respiratory illness that can cause serious complications such as sepsis or meningitis and can lead to hospitalization, or even death.
The pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for all adults over the age of 65, but your primary care doctor may recommend the vaccine for you if you are younger and have underlying health conditions. Unlike the flu vaccine, you only need one pneumococcal vaccine.
Hepatitis B Vaccine
Hepatitis B is a serious and potentially deadly liver disease that can spread through blood and fluids. Hepatitis B can cause liver failure, liver cancer, or cirrhosis of the liver. There are other forms of hepatitis that all affect the liver but do so in different ways. Hepatitis B can spread from person to person even if you don’t have symptoms of the disease.
While the Hepatitis B vaccine is given to children as part of the pediatric vaccine schedule, it is also recommended for all adults under the age of 60. Older adults with certain risk factors should also get the Hepatitis B vaccine. This vaccine is given in a 3-dose series.
Meningitis B Vaccine
Meningitis is a disease that affects the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord. While it isn’t fatal, it can have serious, lasting complications, including brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities. While meningitis can be caused by both viruses and bacteria, viral meningitis is rarer and much less contagious. Meningitis has several subtypes, including types A, C, W, Y, and B.
Most children get the meningitis vaccine for types A, C, W, and Y while they’re teenagers. The vaccine for Meningitis B is recommended for older adolescents and young adults, especially those who plan to attend college and live in dorms.
Vaccines for Work or Travel
Certain adults who work in healthcare professions or who travel extensively for work may need additional vaccines. If you’re planning to go on vacation outside the United States, you may also need other vaccinations to travel.
While needed vaccines vary according to where you’re planning to travel and your planned activities, you should always be up-to-date on your routine adult vaccinations before traveling. Many travel-specific vaccines protect against mosquito-borne illnesses, illnesses caused by contaminated food or water, and other local risks. You may need to provide proof of vaccination before traveling.
Your Primary Care Doctor and Vaccines
Your primary care doctor is your partner for better health. One way they do this is by making sure you’re up-to-date on necessary vaccines and screenings. Your primary care doctor will keep an accurate record of your vaccines as part of your medical history. Using your vaccine and medical history, they are able to recommend vaccines based on your age, risk factors, and other healthcare concerns.
Your primary care doctor is also the best person to come to with your questions about vaccines. Whether you’re concerned about a vaccine’s effectiveness, importance, or side effects, your primary care doctor can help you make an educated, informed decision before getting a vaccine.
What to Do if You Need a Vaccine
If you think you might be due for a vaccine, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. Not only can they discuss your vaccine needs, but you can also usually get your vaccine at that same appointment. If you don’t have a primary care doctor, now is the perfect time to establish care and develop a relationship with a trusted provider.
However, if you have an urgent need for a vaccine, you can visit an urgent care clinic near you. Your urgent care doctor can also help you determine whether or not you need a vaccine and can answer any questions you may have.
At MedHelp, you can get comprehensive care from compassionate primary care and urgent care providers. Our primary care doctors are accepting new patients at all five Birmingham locations, and our urgent care clinics can provide needed vaccines through our primary care services. We offer routine adult vaccines as well as the flu vaccine during flu season.
All MedHelp Clinics in Birmingham offer relationship-based primary care in addition to walk-in urgent care services. Our primary care doctors are accepting new patients at each of our five locations. Our office staff can help you choose a doctor that meets your needs and fits your schedule.
1 What is Polio?: CDC. Accessed 10 March 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/polio/what-is-polio/polio-us.html
2 Talbird, S., Carrico, et al. Impact of Routine Childhood Immunization in Reducing Vaccine-Preventable Diseases in the United States. Pediatrics. 2022 Sep 1;150(3). doi: 10.1542/peds.2021-056013
3 Weekly US Influenza Surveillance Report: CDC. Updated 17 March 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/index.htm