Each year at this time I write an article reminding everyone it’s time to get their flu shot. But that isn’t the only shot seniors should think about.
There are several preventable diseases which can cause serious illness and even death in unvaccinated seniors. Many feel that they don’t need vaccinations, or worry about their side effects. But people age 65 and older are at higher risk of complications from the actual diseases.
The most important vaccinations seniors should discuss with their doctors include the flu vaccine, pneumococcal vaccine to prevent pneumonia, the shingles vaccine (zoster), and tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis vaccine (Tdap).
A vaccine provides immunity from a disease, and can be administered by injections, by mouth, or by aerosol. A vaccine contains the same germs or a part of the germ that causes a certain disease. The virus or bacteria is either killed or weakened to the point that it doesn’t make you ill.
A vaccine stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies to the disease. Thus, you develop immunity to that disease without having to get the disease first. So, unlike medicine, instead of treating or curing diseases – a vaccine actually prevents them.
Over 60 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occur in people 65 years and older. That’s why it is recommended that most adults get an annual flu vaccination. Getting an annual flu vaccine is necessary because immunity is short-lived, and manufacturers update the vaccine annually to ensure that it is as effective as possible against the most current strains of the virus. The vaccine is usually available September through April each year, depending on supply.
Speak to your health care provider before getting the flu shot if you are allergic to eggs, latex, have had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine previously, or have had Guillain-Barre syndrome. Patients with fevers should wait to be vaccinated until the illness subsides.
Pneumonia causes significant illness in seniors and is responsible for 60,000 deaths each year. People 65 years or older need a series of two different vaccines for pneumococcal disease. Talk with your health care provider about how to schedule them, and let them know if you have had a pneumococcal vaccine before.
There are currently two types of pneumococcal vaccines: pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23). There are more than 90 types of pneumococcal bacteria, and PCV13 protects against 13 types, while PPSV23 protects against 23 types. Both protect against illnesses like meningitis (infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord) and bacteremia (blood infection). PCV13 also provides protection against pneumonia (lung infection).
Shingles is a very painful, contagious blistering rash caused by reactivation of the herpes zoster, or chicken pox virus. If you are 60 or older, get a shot to prevent it ─ even if you have already had shingles. The zoster vaccine has only been available for a few years, and decreases your risk of having shingles by about 50 percent, or can minimize its severity. There are risks with the vaccine for people with certain conditions, so be sure to discuss any health problems you have with your doctor.
Tdap is a combination vaccine that protects against three potentially life-threatening bacterial diseases: tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). There has been a resurgence of whooping cough among older adults as the vaccine they may have received as a child loses its effectiveness. You may need this vaccine even if you received vaccines as a child or as a younger adult, or received a tetanus shot after an injury. Ask your doctor about getting a shot for tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough. It contains the same components as the tetanus-diphtheria vaccine with the addition of the pertussis component. More seniors are getting pertussis, or whooping cough, possibly due to fading immunity.
Talk with your doctor about which vaccines he or she recommends, and make sure to have the needed vaccines on schedule to help prevent disease and maintain good health. Talk to your provider if you are unsure which vaccines you have received in the past.
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Anne Wilson, owner of Comfort Keepers®, works professionally with the elderly on issues relating to senior independence. She can be contacted at 815-229-9100.