En español | Most of us remember those painful pinches at the pediatrician's office — you know, the ones our mothers said were for our own good. Mom was right, of course. Vaccines play a vital role in protecting us and the ones we love from the often devastating effects of disease and illness.
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But vaccines aren't just for kids. According to Gregory Poland, M.D., director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., 50,000 to 70,000 Americans die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases — including 40,000 flu-related deaths annually, 95 percent of which occur in adults 60 and older.
Indeed, vaccines are like seat belts, says Steven Mawhorter, M.D., director of the Cleveland Clinic International Travelers' Health Clinic. "You wear them every day even though you don't get in an accident every day," he says. "But you still need the seat belt because the illness is sometimes the person who runs the red light."
Confused about which — if any — vaccines you might need? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following vaccines for adults age 50 and older:
Who should get it: Everyone 50 and older.
The guidelines: Generally, adults 50 and older should not receive a flu vaccine through nasal spray. Those who are allergic to eggs, have had a bad reaction to a previous flu shot or have a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome after receiving a flu shot should speak with their doctor before receiving the flu shot, according to the CDC. If you are sick when you go to get the shot — particularly if you have a fever — tell your doctor.
What to consider: Influenza poses an enormous risk to older adults and to young children. Those 50 and older should receive an annual dose of the vaccine developed for that particular year's flu season. The 2010-2011 flu shot will protect against three prevalent strains of flu, including the 2009 H1N1 virus, according to the CDC.
Pneumococcal vaccine (pneumonia)
Who should get it: Everyone 65 and older; adults 50 and over with certain risk factors.
The guidelines: Adults 50 and older with serious health problems, such as chronic lung and heart disease, diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, asthma or a history of alcoholism or smoking — among other health issues — should speak with their doctor about getting this vaccine.
What to consider: Pneumococcal pneumonia can cause fever and respiratory problems. Healthy adults who work in a setting where they're around chronically ill people — such as a hospital or nursing home — should also get the vaccine.
Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis)
Who should get it: Adults 50 to 64; 65 and older receive Td booster only.
The guidelines: A resurgence of pertussis — also known as whooping cough — has led to a CDC recommendation that adults 50 to 64 receive a booster immunization that protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. California currently has a "raging epidemic of pertussis," says Poland of the Mayo Clinic, adding that Canada recently issued a warning to its citizens planning to travel to California.
What to consider: If you have young grandchildren or frequently spend time around infants, it's important to have a Tdap shot to boost your own immunity to avoid infecting children you spend time with, Poland says.
Zoster vaccine (shingles)
Who should get it: Adults 60 and older.
The guidelines: According to Poland, the risk factor for shingles increases enormously at the age of 60; therefore, all adults 60 and older should receive the vaccine.
What to consider: Adults between the ages of 50 and 60 who have never had chickenpox and have not been immunized should receive the varicella vaccine, Poland says. If you have a chronic illness, check with your doctor to see if you should receive the zoster vaccine.
Next: More recommended vaccines for those over 50. »