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Adult vaccinations: why are they important?

An adult received his vaccination from a doctor.
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Written by Andrea Payne

Vaccines are not just important in childhood. There are many that are important and beneficial well into our senior years. At the latest Speaker Series lecture, I discussed the importance of immunizations in adulthood, and how they can help boost community immunity.

When most people in a community are immune to a contagious disease, it can’t spread easily. That’s why it’s important to make sure you are up-to-date with all of your recommended vaccines throughout life. Also, our immune systems gradually get weaker as we age. This natural occurrence makes it harder for our bodies to protect against or fight infections, making vaccines a key part of staying healthy. 

Pertussis 

Pertussis is a bacteria that causes whooping cough, and it’s highly contagious through coughing and sneezing. Pertussis can cause intense coughing accompanied by a telltale “whoop” sound. While it’s more common in infants and young children, adults and seniors can also be affected. Pertussis vaccination is available in combination with tetanus (Tdap), and it’s recommended all adults get one dose in adulthood. This is especially important if there is contact with an infant, as they can suffer severe complications from pertussis, including brain swelling and seizures. So if you are a grandparent, make sure to ask your doctor about this. And if you are pregnant, it’s recommended you get a Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy between 27-32 weeks gestation. 

Pneumonia

Pneumococcal pneumonia can cause a serious cough, fever, shortness of breath and fatigue, and is a leading cause of death and illness. People affected by other health conditions or chronic illnesses, like asthma, are at higher risk. Pneumonia can spread to other parts of the body, including the blood and brain. The highest risk of complications happens in people under two years old, and those older than 65 years. 

There are two types of pneumococcal vaccines available: Pneumovax23 and Prevnar13. It’s recommended that all adults aged 65 and older get one dose of Pneumovax23, regardless of their risk factors. People at high risk of pneumonia are recommended to get one dose of each of these vaccines; Prevnar13 should be given first, followed by Pneumovax23, as the two together provide the best immunity. 

Check with your health provider to see which option is best for you. 

Shingles 

Also know as herpes zoster, shingles causes severe nerve pain, itching and a blistering skin rash. It’s caused by a reactivation of a previous chicken pox infection, and the risk of developing it increases as you age. Some of the complications associated with shingles, including chronic nerve pain in the area that’s affected, are also much higher in people over the age of 50. About 1 in 3 Canadians will develop shingles in their lifetime, so it’s so important to do what you can to protect yourself. 

It’s recommended everyone over the age of 50 should be immunized for shingles. 

There are two different shingles vaccines available in Canada. Zostavax II is a one-dose live vaccine, so it can’t be given to people who are pregnant or immunocompromised. Overall, it’s about 51 per cent effective, and the effectiveness wanes after about three to five years. Shingrix is a recombinant vaccine, meaning it contains a booster that will help your body with the uptake of it. It’s given over two doses, and is about 96 per cent effective. Studies show that people are protected for at least four years, and possibly as long as nine years afterwards. 

Flu 

Every year, the flu poses a health threat to our community, and those aged 65 and older are at a much higher risk for suffering flu-related complications. Getting your flu vaccine can protect you, your loved ones and the general community. Often, higher doses of the flu vaccine are offered to those over age 65 to compensate for their bodies decreased ability to amount an immune response in older age. 

No matter what vaccine you are considering, be sure to talk to your health care provider. They can inform you about any associated costs, and what the best options are for you. 


Watch the full Speaker Series webcast, including Andrea Payne’s talk on Vaccines Needed in Adulthood:

About the author

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Andrea Payne

Andrea Payne is a Nurse Practitioner with Sunnybrook’s Department of Family & Community Medicine. Visit the Sunnybrook Academic Family Health Team website.