Q&A: Do Adults Really Need Vaccines?

Unlike Trix, vaccines aren't just for kids. A local doc gave us the lowdown on adult vaccination.

If your last vaccination ended with a nurse slapping a Barney Band-Aid on your arm and telling you “Great job, kiddo!,” you’re probably way overdue for some shots. Vaccines can be easy to forget about once you grow old enough to escape school requirements, but your body doesn’t suddenly become invincible with age. I chatted with Mario Maffei, residency program director and lead physician at Virtua Family Medicine Residency in South Jersey, to get the skinny on adult vaccination—why it’s important to stay up to date, which vaccines you should get, how often you should get them and more.

Why is it important for adults to receive vaccines?

Two major reasons. The first is that adults often forget the importance of health maintenance. After people reach a certain age, it’s easy to skip that annual checkup when no one is forcing them to stay on top of their health. Adults have a poor vaccination rate because they rarely seek it out, and this is something that needs to change since they can still be prone to diseases.

The second reason is a much less selfish one. If adults become sick, they are often in a healthy position to fight something, but the very young and the very old are in a much more vulnerable state. An unprotected adult might do fine, but could pass along something to a child or elderly person that could be very detrimental or even fatal.

What kinds of vaccines should adults get?

Several—some are on a more regular basis, some less regularly. The most obvious is the flu vaccine to protect against the influenza virus. This is something that all adults should get annually, usually in the fall.

Another important vaccine is Tdap, which protects against tetanus (lockjaw), pertussis (whooping cough), and diphtheria. This vaccine is administered to adults once, and then they should receive a booster dose known as the Td every ten years afterwards.

The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV) is another important one. Healthy people get the vaccine one at age 65, no booster
required. Younger adults ages 19 to 64 should receive the PPSV only if they are a smoker, or have certain conditions such as asthma, emphysema,diabetes, or any other severe chronic illness, such as kidney failure or immune system disorders. Those with a severe chronic illness should receive a booster only once five years after the first dose; those who smoke or with more mild chronic diseases (diabetes, emphysema, asthma) should get the booster only once when they turn 65 (or older to make sure five years has passed between first and second dose).

Adults should also receive the zoster vaccine, which prevents shingles, a reactivation of the chicken pox. They should receive this vaccination at age 60. Even if they had shingles at age 55, they should still receive this vaccine five years later.

Finally, adolescents and young adults up to age 26 should receive the HPV vaccine to protect against infection of the human papillomavirus, which is associated with cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in females, and genital warts in both males and females.

It’s also very important to make sure that as an adult, you have already received the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella, as well as the varicella vaccine, which protects against chicken pox. Even if you didn’t receive these vaccines as a child, they are still effective on adults and are extremely important to have.

Are there any vaccines adults should make sure they have when traveling?

Definitely the flu shot and the Tdap. If you’re going to South America, make sure you have the Hepatitis A and B shots. This is a situation in which the person should talk to their family doctor about where they’re going, since they may need special vaccines depending on where in the world they’re traveling. For example, sometimes you might need something for yellow fever, which you would not normally get. You also want to make sure that you give yourself enough time before your trip so that the vaccine will be effective by the time you arrive, since some vaccines require more time than others to work.