Think fast: When’s the last time you’ve had a booster shot? If you’re like (ahem) most of us, it’s been a while. “People often think that if they’ve had all their shots as a kid, that’s it, but that’s not true,” says Susan Besser, MD, family physician with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Not only do some immunizations lose effectiveness over time, but there are updated recommendations—and even some new boosters available—that you may not even be aware of.
As for the recent anti-vaccine movement, based on fears of vaccines contributing to autism, experts unanimously agree that the claims are false and have since been debunked. “Remember what vaccines are for in the first place, to protect our population from a heavy death toll on communicable diseases that we can otherwise prevent,” says Ahmad Garrett-Price, MD, family physician at Baylor Scott and White Health in Dallas. “No matter how you feel about vaccinations, don’t make your decisions based on myth or message boards. Remember, too, that vaccines aren’t just about protecting you, they’re mainly there to protect the vulnerable: the elderly and children.”
Here are the booster shots you should ask your doctor about:
Pertussis (aka Whooping Cough)
Whooping cough may seem like a disease from ancient times, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that it’s on the rise, with up to 50,000 reported cases a year. “We used to think that if you were immunized as a child, you’d be fine, but it turns out your immunity wanes as you age,” says Dr. Besser. It’s now recommended that adults get a pertussis booster shot every 10 years, she says. While the disease itself may not be more than a bothersome condition for a healthy adult—”it must just be annoying, like a cough that just won’t go away,” says Dr. Besser—the disease can be serious or even deadly for infants, which is why it’s recommended expectant parents and caregivers receive the booster shot. It’s especially important for pregnant women as they can pass along short term protection to their babies.
Tetanus is caused by a bacterial infection that enters the skin through a cut, which then affects the nervous system. Since the disease can be caused by scenarios as minor as a pinprick or animal scratch, experts recommend a booster shot every ten years. Keep in mind, your tetanus shot also protects against whooping cough, says Dr. Besser. “People don’t realize it’s not just tetanus in the shot, but you can also get protected from pertussis in the same vaccine,” she says. Discover what else your doctor wishes you knew about immunizations.
According to the CDC, there were 136 pediatric deaths due to the flu during the 2018-2019 season, and roughly eight out of ten of these deaths occurred in unvaccinated children. “That’s when you can directly see the positive correlation between vaccinations and disease prevention,” says Dr. Garrett-Price. But it’s not just children who should be getting the flu shot every year; seniors, anyone with a compromised immune system, and anyone who will come into contact regularly with these groups should definitely get one. Because the flu strain changes every year, the current recommendation is to have a flu vaccine shot every year, says Dr. Besser. The flu can be deadly for adults, too—the CDC estimates that there may have been as many as 61,200 flu-related deaths last winter. “It takes six weeks to develop immunity, so get it early before flu season starts,” she recommends. Avoid these flu shot mistakes that can make it less effective.
Hepatitis A and B vaccines are often included on the regular vaccination schedule for children but that’s only been true since the mid-90’s. People born before that should talk to their doctor about getting immunized against the highly contagious virus, says Erich M. Sturgis, MD, professor and surgeon with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. This is especially true for people with risk factors for cancer as hepatitis B and C can increase your risk of getting certain types of cancer, he explains. Another group that needs to be vaccinated for hepatits are people with both Type I and Type II, according to the CDC. Diabetes, even if well managed, can make it harder for your immune system to fight infections, they say. In addition, people with diabetes are at a higher risk for hepatitis B due to ways they measure their blood glucose levels. This means that if you have diabetes, the CDC recommends getting immunized for hepatitis.
There are many types of meningitis, including bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic varieties and while not all are severe, some strains are extremely contagious and deadly, sometimes causing death in just a few hours. There aren’t vaccines for every strain but two vaccines cover the most serious ones: The meningococcal and Hib vaccines. “The good news is that there is a vaccine that protects against the bacteria responsible for most cases of meningitis but the bad news is that because it wasn’t widely available until 1987 most adults haven’t received it,” says Robert Hamilton, MD, pediatrician at Pacific Ocean Pediatrics. These vaccines are especially important for young adults as the highest rates of meningococcal meningitis occur in people aged 16 to 23, with many universities reporting outbreaks, according to the CDC.
If you’re between 27 and 45: HPV
The FDA recently upped its recommendations for HPV to include a wider age range, to prevent the 14 million Americans annually infected with HPV, which has been found to be associated with cervical and other cancers, Dr. Sturgis says. “The HPV vaccine is a whole different way of looking at vaccines because it’s our first cancer-killing vaccine,” says Dr. Besser. “It may pave the way for others in the future.”
If you’re 50 or older: Shingles
The FDA approved Shingrix for use in 2017 (which, according to the CDC, is now the preferred shingles vaccine over existing Zostavax, which was approved in 2006). The vaccine is recommended starting at age 50, so talk to your doctor about whether you need a shingles shot (it’s actually two shots). Those 60 and over are advised to get a vaccine every five years to prevent the reactivation of the virus, varicella zoster, which also causes chickenpox. Shingles can cause an incredibly painful rash, and sometimes long-term nerve pain. Find out the hidden symptoms of shingles not to ignore.
If you’re over 65: Pneumonia
If you’re 65 or older, you can add pneumonia to your list of immunizations, says Dr. Garrett-Price. “That’s the segment of the population that’s most vulnerable to serious complications from pneumonia,” he says. The two-parter vaccine will remain effective for your lifetime. Do you know the difference between upper respiratory infections and pneumonia?
If you were born after 1957: Measles (maybe)
“It was all quiet on the measles front until recently, because we’d previously done a great job vaccinating against it,” says Dr. Garrett-Price, referring to the record-breaking measles outbreaks. Those born before 1957 are thought to have a natural immunity to the disease (due to earlier outbreaks), but others may need a booster depending on when you got your original vaccine, as the recommendations changed in 1989 to include two versus one shot. Your doctor can run an immunity test to determine your need for a measles booster shot. If you plan on traveling abroad anytime in the near future, you’ll also want to know about these vaccinations for world travelers.