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August Is National Immunization Awareness Month

Every year, this national observance is held to call attention to the need for vaccinations for people of all ages.

Some people think that immunizations are just for children, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Vaccines protect us from harmful diseases throughout life—and older adults are often at higher risk of contracting these diseases and suffering serious complications from them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that seniors who have heart disease, asthma, lung disease and diabetes can be at particularly high risk of these complications, and even of death.

But we can give our bodies a real advantage at fighting off these diseases! The American Lung Association (ALA) describes it like this: “Vaccines work by teaching the body’s immune system to recognize and defend against harmful viruses or bacteria before getting an infection.” In other words, when a germ makes us sick, our immune system remembers it and fights it off next time — but with immunization, we’re better prepared even at first exposure!

Here are the immunizations that are currently recommended for most older adults:

Annual flu vaccine
Seasonal influenza — “the flu” — can be a serious illness for older adults. They are the population most likely to get it, and make up 90 percent of people who die from the effects of the disease. We need to get a flu shot each year, because the influenza viruses that spread are different each year. For people older than 65, a higher-dose shot may be recommended. Also note that the CDC does not recommend the nasal spray flu vaccine for adults older than 50.

Tetanus (sometimes called “lockjaw”) and diphtheria are severe, often fatal diseases. Pertussis (“whooping cough”) causes spasms of severe coughing. The vaccines for these three diseases are given in different combinations; ask your doctor which type is recommended for you.

Shingles is a painful, blistering rash that is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles usually clears up after a few weeks. But some people—most of them seniors—will develop complications such as postherpetic neuralgia, a very painful and debilitating condition that can last for a long time. There are two types of shingles vaccines; ask your doctor if the newest type is right for you, even if you’ve already received the older vaccine, or had shingles. A person can get shingles more than once.

Pneumonia (pneumococcal disease)
Pneumococcal illness can be very dangerous, causing damage to the lungs, brain, spinal cord and bloodstream, and can lead to hearing and vision loss, seizures, and death. The CDC recommends that adults age 65 or older receive two types of pneumococcal vaccine. The two vaccines are not given at the same time.

Other vaccines
People with certain health problems, immunization histories and lifestyles may need additional vaccines. These might include the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) shot, vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, and for meningococcal disease. People who are planning foreign travel might need other shots, as well. Talk to your doctor well in advance of your trip.

According to the ALA, 50,000 adults in the U.S. die each year from diseases that could have been prevented by vaccines. Why chance it? And by getting vaccinated, you not only protect yourself, but also babies who aren’t old enough to be vaccinated, and vulnerable adults who cannot be vaccinated. Medicare and most private insurances will pay for immunizations. So roll up your sleeve for better health!

The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about the immunizations you should receive, and maintain an up-to-date immunization record to keep with your other important documents.

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