When most people think about vaccinations or booster shots, they remember taking their kids to the pediatrician to get them done and stopping for ice cream on the way home. However, the older you get, the more your immune system needs a little help to fight off pathogens like bacteria and viruses.
For seniors age 65 and over, the risk of getting sick from the flu, pneumonia, and shingles goes up sharply due to an immune system that just isn’t as strong as it once was. On top of that, the likelihood of developing serious complications that lead to long-term illness, hospital stays and even death also goes up as you get older. It’s common among elderly patients, for example, to catch a cold, which eventually creates the perfect environment for a bacterial infection that leads to pneumonia.
For seniors who have ongoing health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, the stakes are even higher. And the most effective way to protect yourself against these illnesses is to stay current with your vaccinations and booster shots, reducing your risk of infection.
Your physician, of course, is the best resource for determining which shots you may need. In general, however, the most important vaccinations are:
Influenza or flu vaccine
An annual flu vaccine has been shown in studies to reduce the risk of being hospitalized due to flu and pneumonia for people 65 years old and older. Influenza, also known as “flu,” is caused by a virus, and the symptoms include sudden-onset fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, and cough. It is highly contagious and spreads easily by contact or from touching objects that are frequently handled, such as faucets, doorknobs, etc.
Seniors age 65 and older should ask their physician about a high-strength influenza vaccine administered under the brand name, Fluzone High-Dose, specifically designed for elderly patients. It has four times the amount of antigen as the regular-strength shot, resulting in a stronger immune response.
Side effects of the flu vaccine may include soreness at the injection site for a couple of days, as well as some flu-like symptoms like fever and achiness. However, because the vaccine contains no live influenza virus, it is impossible to get the flu from it.
Shingles is an extremely painful, blistering rash that is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox, and it can last for weeks before subsiding. All seniors should get the shingles vaccine as directed by their physician. There are two types of shingles vaccines available, RZV and ZVL, and by the age of 65, every senior should have received one of them. Although, if you have a weakened immune system, the ZVL type should be avoided.
As we age, we become more and more at risk of getting shingles, with approximately one in three people affected at some point in their lives. If you should get shingles, see your doctor as soon as possible. If caught early enough, antiviral treatments can drastically reduce the pain and the length of time that the outbreak lasts.
Pneumococcal vaccine for protection against pneumonia
Pneumococcal pneumonia is caused by a bacterial infection of the lungs. Symptoms can begin suddenly with a severe chill, typically followed by high fever, coughing, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, and chest pains. Pneumonia is a serious illness that requires medical attention, usually in a hospital setting.
There are two types of vaccines for pneumonia, and for seniors who are in good health, it’s best to have both. However, avoid the PCV13 type if you have been diagnosed with heart disease, chronic lung or liver disease, or diabetes, either type 1 or type 2. Alcoholics should also avoid this vaccine.
Tdap or Td for protection against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough)
Depending on your age, you may have received vaccinations for these diseases as a child. If you didn’t, however, Tdap or Td for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis is an important step for your health. Even if you were vaccinated, you should get a booster shot every ten years.
As always, check with your physician for more information about the vaccinations and booster shots you should have as you age. After all, keeping up with your shots can improve your quality of life and guard against potentially life-threatening diseases.