A Doctor's Perspective on Important Vaccines for Grandparents

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Staying up to date with vaccines and booster shots is crucially important for your health and the health of those around you. Dr. Donald Middleton shares what he wants older adults to know about immunizations to clarify vaccine recommendations.

1. Q: Why do older adults need to get repeat vaccinations that they received as children?

A: Vaccines are critical for protecting us against highly contagious and potentially fatal diseases. When you receive a vaccine as a child, you’re injected with a safe, altered form of the infecting agent so that your body’s immune system can learn how to fight the disease. Your immune system will develop proteins called antibodies to fight off invaders and keep you healthy. Should you come into contact with the disease after your vaccine, your immune system will know how to fight it. However, if you’re not re-exposed to the disease, over time the antibodies’ response becomes too weak to provide full protection. You can think of it like exercising; if you’re an avid cycler but stop training for a while, you’re not going to ride as well or as quickly as time goes by.

We try to maintain the antibodies by giving booster doses of vaccines throughout a person’s life. For example, we recommend that all children receive a vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, also known as whooping cough. Once they reach adolescence or adulthood, everyone should receive a one-time booster shot against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, called Tdap, and, every 10 years thereafter, a booster shot against tetanus and diphtheria, called Td. These booster doses keep the body familiar with the different diseases so it’s ready to fight if necessary.

2. Q: What vaccines are particularly important for grandparents?

A: The booster shot against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, the Tdap, is actually very important for grandparents to know about. In fact, any older adult who will come in contact with an infant under the age of six months should receive a Tdap shot if he or she has not already had one. The booster dose protects the adult, of course, but it also protects the baby. Babies younger than two months old don’t respond well to the vaccine aimed at whooping cough (pertussis), so they’re vulnerable to contracting whooping cough and a number of other diseases. A grandparent who hasn’t received a Tdap booster could be carrying the pertussis infection with them and not know it. Unfortunately, they might pass along the infection to the infant, who is ill-equipped to fight the disease. If you’re an older adult excited to meet your new grandchild, make sure you’ve had a Tdap shot. If you haven’t, schedule an appointment to get one at least two weeks before meeting the baby to give your body time to develop antibodies.

We also recommend all adults over 50 get the shingles vaccine. Shingles is a painful rash that stems from the same virus that causes chickenpox. Not only is shingles miserable to deal with, but people with shingles can also spread chickenpox, which can be quite severe, especially in infants who do not get a preventive chickenpox vaccine until they are one year old.

If you were born after 1957 and if you have not been previously vaccinated with MMR, we recommend you get the MMR vaccine, which fights measles, mumps, and rubella. While rubella is thankfully rare in the United States, mumps and measles outbreaks continue to occur. Infants aren’t protected from these diseases until they’re vaccinated at 12 months old, so it’s crucial for grandparents to stay up to date. People born before 1957 are generally considered to be immune to measles and mumps so they won’t need an MMR shot.

Adults over the age of 65 should also get two different pneumonia vaccines, called Prevnar and Pneumovax, one year apart, to protect themselves as well as the children around them. Seniors and children under the age of five have an elevated risk of contracting pneumonia and internal infection from the bacteria called pneumococcus, against which these vaccines protect.

We believe everyone should get the flu shot annually.  About 90% of deaths from the flu occur in people over the age of 65, so it’s especially important for seniors to get a flu vaccine. Like other vaccines, you’re not only protecting yourself—you’re also protecting unvaccinated people around you like infants.

3. Q: What tips do you have for staying on top of vaccine records?

A: A lot of patients want to be proactive about their vaccine schedules, which is great. Typically, thanks to electronic medical records, your healthcare providers should be able to let you know when it’s time to get a booster shot. But since not all doctor’s offices use the same system to maintain medical records, it can also be helpful to track this information yourself. Personally, I carry a little card in my wallet that tells me what vaccines I’ve had and when I need boosters. I’ve also seen patients use different smartphone apps and reminders to keep track of their vaccine records. Regardless of your system, it’s important to stay on top of this information—for your health and for the health of those around you.

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THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.