Adult Vaccines: 7 Things Doctors Want You to Know

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Darcy Lewis on November 8, 2020
  • Mother, grandmother and granddaughter blowing bubbles together
    Vaccines aren’t just for kids.
    Just because you received all your childhood vaccines doesn’t mean you’re still protected decades later from vaccine-preventable illnesses like mumps and measles. Immunity from childhood vaccines wears off over time, so getting and staying current with adult vaccines is an important part of staying healthy all through adulthood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that thousands of American adults become seriously ill and are hospitalized every year because of diseases that vaccines can help prevent. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reviews and publishes updated vaccine recommendations each year. In the meantime, here’s what three doctors want you to know about adult vaccination, including the Tdap vaccine and the new shingles vaccine.
  • Grandmother with baby grandchild
    1. “Vaccines are needed to keep you healthy at every age.”
    Vaccines work by helping your immune system do its job better and faster. When you get sick, that means bacteria or virus cells have somehow entered your body and begun multiplying. Your body responds by turning on your immune system to attack and destroy the invading cells. When you get immunized, the vaccine “tricks” your immune system into fighting invaders that aren’t even there, keeping you safe from the real threat. The vaccine safely triggers a protective immune response without making you sick in the process. “Vaccines are an important part of preventive medicine, which is crucial to keeping people healthy and improving outcomes when people do get sick,” says Ada Stewart, MD, a family physician with the Eau Claire Cooperative Health Centers in Columbia, S.C. “Preventive medicine like adult vaccination also reduces the burden on the healthcare system and helps reduce healthcare expenses for all of us.”
  • Multigenerational family at birthday party
    2. “Getting vaccinated protects everyone around you.”
    When you get vaccinated, those shots help keep your family members safe, too, by not exposing them to vaccine-preventable diseases. In fact, everyone around you benefits when you get vaccinated on schedule. That’s because people with weakened immune systems can’t receive vaccines. This includes people with cancer and HIV/AIDS, as well as babies who are too young to be vaccinated. They need so-called herd immunity to be safe from infectious diseases like pertussis and influenza. “Herd immunity means people who can’t be vaccinated still get protection from disease because a critical mass of people in the community did get vaccinated,” says Christopher Carpenter, MD, an internal medicine and infectious disease specialist at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. “Deciding not to get vaccinated is a decision to put others at risk.”
  • Grandfather taking a selfie with son and grandson
    3. “New parents and grandparents need the Tdap vaccine.”
    Pertussis, better known as whooping cough, is a bacterial respiratory disease currently on the rise, especially among infants and older adults. Unborn babies can get some protection from their mother through the umbilical cord, which is why the CDC recommends that every pregnant woman receive the Tdap vaccine during the third trimester of each pregnancy. Doctors also recommend a booster shot of this vaccine—which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis—for every adult who will be around the new baby, including the new father and the grandparents. “Newborn babies are too young to be vaccinated, so we must do what we can to protect these babies before they are able to start developing their own immunity,” says Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, MD, an internal medicine specialist in Atlanta and former president of the American College of Physicians.
  • Shingles blisters on woman's shoulder
    4. “Ask your doctor about the new shingles vaccine.”
    Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a viral infection that causes a painful rash and nerve pain that can linger for years. Simply put, it is a reactivation of chickenpox virus that has remained in your body following a bout with chickenpox years or even decades earlier. Shingles becomes more common with age but vaccination can help. In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration licensed a new shingles vaccine called Shingrix. The CDC recommends that healthy adults 50 years and older get two doses of Shingrix, 2 to 6 months apart. Shingrix is now the preferred vaccine, over the older Zostavax vaccine. “Zostavax requires only one dose but is significantly less effective than Shingrix,” says Dr. Fryhofer. “Even people who have already received Zostavax should now receive Shingrix.”
  • Grandfather playing in park with granddaughter
    5. “You need adult vaccines because your immunity weakens over time.”
    As we get older, we often find our immune system is not as effective as it used to be; we may get sick more often and take longer to heal. “As our immune system ages, it’s normal for it not to work as well, which makes adult vaccines even more important,” says Dr. Fryhofer. “For example, older adults are more at risk for getting shingles and pneumococcal disease, and they are more likely to be hospitalized with pertussis than children are. Luckily, we have vaccines to prevent all of these illnesses.”
  • Doctor giving patient vaccination
    6. “Most vaccine side effects are quite mild.”
    Most people do not develop serious side effects when they get vaccinated. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, if 1 million doses of a vaccine are given, 1 to 2 people may have a severe allergic reaction. If you do feel ill after getting vaccinated, call your doctor. In most cases, side effects are mild and soon pass. “Common side effects like headache, achiness, sore arm, fever or fatigue are actually signs your immune system is being stimulated so you will be protected,” Dr. Carpenter says.
  • Mother, daughter and grandchild laughing
    7. “Getting vaccinated is much safer than getting the actual disease.”
    Doctors are quick to point out that most vaccines are made with dead virus cells and can’t infect you with the disease they are trying to prevent. Dr. Carpenter notes that vaccines are among the most studied drugs in medicine. “It generally takes 15 to 20 years to go from studying a vaccine to putting it into widespread use. By that time, it has been studied on literally tens of thousands of patients,” he says. “Then there’s ongoing monitoring for safety after each vaccine gets approved. Today’s vaccines are much safer than getting the actual infection.”
What Doctors Say About Adult Vaccines for Whooping Cough & Tdap

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 8
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