I have never been particularly fond of getting shots. One time, I even had to give them to myself – ouch! But, I’m not particularly fond about the idea of getting a vaccine-preventable, potentially life-threatening disease, either. Vaccines – those are just for kids, right? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there are several vaccines that adults should also get on a regular basis. Children get what’s called the “original series” – shots that establish immunity to the disease. But vaccines don’t last forever, so adults have to get boosters and, sometimes, depending on the vaccine, you will be getting vaccinated against a disease for the first time.
What are vaccines, anyway? Vaccines (also called immunizations) are medicines that are formed from substances that actually cause disease. Our immune systems are programmed to recognize harmful viruses or bacteria and produce antibodies – those little soldiers in our blood that fight disease. In some cases, a person gets the disease and develops a natural immunity to it. For example, most people who were sick with chicken pox as children develop immunity to it and probably will not get it again. The same is true with mumps, measles, etc. With vaccines, however, you don’t have to get ill and take your chances on surviving the disease. You get a tiny amount to stimulate your body’s immune system to start producing antibody soldiers, and once that has happened, you are protected from the disease, or immunized. Does it happen 100% every time for every person? No. But it works for most people, most of the time. Do vaccines cause autism in children? No, they don’t. Do people sometimes have allergic reactions or other unexpected reactions? Yes, but it is pretty rare.
If you are person with a chronic illness like diabetes, asthma, or chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), you should get your vaccines at a young age. People with chronic illnesses are more likely to get sicker or die from infectious diseases than people who don’t have chronic illnesses. A good example of this is pneumonia vaccine. The recommendation is that pneumonia vaccine be given to persons without chronic illness at age 65, because older people are more likely to get very sick from pneumonia, or even die from it (as many as 50,000 people in the U.S. die from pneumonia every year). But, with a chronic illness, you could get very sick at a younger age and, therefore, you should not wait until age 65 to get vaccinated.
Tdap is a popular vaccine that covers you for three different illnesses – diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). I’ll bet you’ve never seen anyone with diphtheria. Reason? Because most of the U.S. population gets vaccinated! Tetanus? You might have seen it if you live or work on a farm and the person’s tetanus immunization is not up-to-date, but it is very rare to see tetanus in the United States. We thought for a long time that the pertussis vaccine we got as children immunized us against it for our whole lives, but we now know that isn’t true. So, the newest recommendations are to have one Tdap vaccine as an adult, followed by Td (tetanus and diphtheria) every ten years. If you get a really dirty wound, it may be recommended to you to get a Td shot after only five years.
For those of us who did have chicken pox at some point, it is now recommended that we get the new zoster (shingles) vaccine at age 50 or older. The virus that causes chicken pox stays in the body in a quiet (dormant) state, inactivated but still hanging around, even after the person gets over the illness. For some unknown reason, as we get older, there is a greater likelihood that it will suddenly wake up and spring into action to cause people over age 50 complete misery lasting from 2-4 weeks (and sometimes even a year). This is called “shingles” or herpes zoster infection. There is no cure for herpes zoster and the only treatment is to control pain, which can be extreme, and try to shorten the course of the illness. During an episode of herpes zoster, the pain can be immense, as little blisters break out on the skin. Sometimes, this pain will not go away after the blisters do and it can last for months to a year. The zoster vaccine can help prevent this.
Flu (influenza) vaccine is the one that we should get every year. The flu virus changes every season, so the vaccine is made each year based on the changes that have occurred in the virus. Many people confuse the common cold with the flu, when it really is just a common cold. The problem is that if you think the flu is the same as the common cold, you might assume that it’s not so important to get flu vaccine because you don’t feel so sick with a cold. Another reason people don’t want to get flu shots is that many believe the vaccine makes them sick. All vaccines can give you mild symptoms of the disease: a little fever, fatigue and headache. Generally, what happens if you get sick after the flu vaccine is that you already had the flu virus in your system and you coincidentally get sick after having the flu vaccine – or, you get a cold after receiving the vaccine and confuse that with the flu.
There is a saying about the flu: “On the first day you have it, you think you will die. On the second day, you wish you would.” That’s how sick people are when they get the flu! As many as 49,000 people have died from flu in a given year in the United States. When is the best time to get vaccinated for the flu? Each year in September. There are few things more miserable than being on the road while you are sick, so why not prevent what illnesses you can before they take you off course? A few “hot shots” now won’t kill you, but they certainly might save you from a lot of unnecessary misery down the road!