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7 Doctor Recommended Vaccines for Seniors

As we age, our immune system weakens over time, putting us at higher risk for contracting certain diseases and becoming sicker from those diseases as a result. There are several diseases that are higher risk for seniors, including shingles, the flu, and more recently, COVID-19. 

According to the CDC, almost 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime, and that risk increases as you age. For the 2019-2020 flu season, over 40 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations occurred in people 65 years and older, with adults 65+ accounting for 62% of flu-related deaths. As we’ve seen over the past year and a half, COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths have also disproportionately affected the 65+ community, with seniors making up 80% of COVID-19 related deaths

These numbers could be drastically reduced through vaccination and prevention. Here are answers to  a few common questions we receive from seniors and their family members about which vaccines for seniors are necessary. 

What vaccines do seniors need? 

1. COVID-19
A senior woman gets her COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccine clinic

 The COVID-19 global pandemic gave rise to the need to develop vaccines to combat the outbreak of a novel coronavirus (known as SARS CoV-2), the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can be spread primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Symptoms range from mild to severe, with a number of cases becoming fatal.  

Older adults, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone over the age of 12 receive, especially seniors 65+ receive one of the 3 COVID-19 vaccines available:

  • Pfizer-BioNTech (two-dose)
  • Moderna (two-dose)
  • Johnson & Johnson (one dose)

The CDC does not recommend one COVID-19 vaccine for seniors over another– the best vaccine is the one that is available to you. If you have questions about any of the vaccines, reach out to your primary care provider.


2. Influenza (flu)
A senior man can be seen getting his yearly flu shot at his doctor's office

The flu is a viral infection that is treatable, but can be deadly to vulnerable groups like seniors or adults living with chronic health conditions such as asthma and diabetes. One of the best ways to protect yourself from the flu is to get an annual flu vaccination. According to the CDC, seniors  65+ should avoid the nasal spray influenza vaccine and  should get any approved flu vaccine: 

High Dose Flu Vaccine

  • Brand name Fluzone High-Dose.
  • Contains four times more antigen (the part of the vaccine that helps your body build up protection against flu viruses) than the regular vaccine. This vaccine contains more antigen so older people have a better immune response, and therefore, better protection against the flu.

Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine

  • Brand name FLUAD.
  • This is a standard dose made up of three inactivated flu vaccines with an adjuvant.
  • An adjuvant is added to a vaccine to create a stronger immune response to vaccination.

The CDC does not recommend one flu vaccine for seniors over the other. If you have questions about which vaccine is right for you, reach out to your primary care provider.

3. Shingles
A dermatologist inspects a rash on a senior woman's arm

Shingles is a painful rash that appears on the body and is considered a manifestation of chickenpox. Before the rash appears, people may feel intense  burning and numbness where the rash usually develops. Others may experience symptoms such as a fever, headache and fatigue.

Shingles typically lasts between two and six weeks. However, treatment is available that can expedite the healing process. Prescription antiviral drugs used to treat shingles include:

  • Acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • Famciclovir (Famvir)

Since shingles can be especially painful, taking a cool bath or using a cold, wet compress may help relieve the itching and pain of the rash. 

For seniors, complications from shingles can lead to serious, long-term health problems. The complications from shingles range from bacterial skin infections that can cause scarring to hearing and vision loss, nerve damage in the hands and feet and postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).

A vaccine, Shingrix, is available and is highly recommended for adults ages 50 and older. The vaccine is given in two doses, two to six months apart. Even if you have had shingles in the past, you can still take this vaccine to prevent a future outbreak.

 

4. Diphtheria
A senior man of Asian descent is seen struggling to breathe

Diphtheria is an infection of the nose and/or throat. Bacteria from the infection attaches to the lining of the respiratory system and produces a toxin (poison) that can cause weakness, sore throat, fever and swelling in the neck. The infection makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and swallow. 

For treatment options, there are two primary modes those afflicted with diptheria should use according to the CDC:

  • An antitoxin, which stops the toxin produced by bacteria from damaging the body.
  • Antibiotics that kill and get rid of the bacteria.

Complications from diptheria can have serious effects on seniors. For adults 50 and older, diphtheria can lead to permanent breathing problems, heart damage and nerve damage due to the spread of the toxin throughout the body.

A diphtheria vaccine is highly-recommended for seniors, and there are two options for seniors to get vaccinated per vaccines.gov:

  • Tdap vaccine protects adults from tetanus, diptheria and whooping cough.
  • Td vaccine protects adults from diptheria.

 

5. Tetanus
Close up of a senior black woman is seen getting a shot

Tetanus is an infection caused by a bacteria, Clostridium tetani , which can be found in the soil. The bacteria can enter the body through open wounds or cuts in the skin. Tetanus symptoms can include painful spasms, and may  appear anytime from a few days to several weeks after the bacteria has entered the body. 

Other common symptoms of tetanus include stiffness in jaw muscles, neck muscles and abdominal muscles. Tetanus may also lead to difficulty swallowing and painful body spasms caused by minor occurrences from loud noises to physical touch.

Not only is tetanus more severe in seniors, but its complications are also more serious. Depending on the severity of the muscle spasms, seniors are more susceptible to break bones. Tetanus infection in seniors may also block the main lung artery by a blood clot (pulmonary embolus). If the infection is left untreated, muscle spasms can become so intense that it may cause difficulty breathing, resulting in respiratory or heart failure.

According to a study done by the University of Tsukuba, Japan, tetanus is far more common in older adults, but can be prevented with vaccination. Adult vaccines for tetanus include:

  • Td vaccine
  • Tdap vaccine

 

6. Whooping Cough
A senior woman is seen sick in bed surrounded by medications

Whooping cough is a contagious respiratory tract infection. Once infected, it takes about seven to 10 days for the first signs and symptoms to appear. The symptoms may appear cold-like at first with symptoms that include:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal Congestion
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Fever
  • Cough

These symptoms worsen after about two weeks. Mucus accumulates inside your airways, causing an uncomfortable, “whoop”-sounding cough. Although many people do not develop the “whoop” characteristic, the coughing fits can be uncontrollable and painful.

While whooping cough is more common in children, seniors are still susceptible to it, especially if the vaccination has worn off. Some complications seniors may experience or develop include sleep apnea, insomnia, weight loss, pneumonia and eye infections.

Luckily, the whooping cough vaccination is safe and protects you from other infections as well. As mentioned before, the Tdap vaccine is a one-time booster that protects you from tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough. Adults should then get the Td vaccine every 10 years to stay up-to-date on vaccines and healthy. 

 

7. Pneumonia
A senior black man is seen blowing into an incentive spirometer

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes air sacs that may fill with fluid. According to the CDC, seniors 65 and older are more likely to get pneumonia. With symptoms ranging from mild to severe, it is important to make the distinction between pneumonia and its flu-like properties.

There are quite a few symptoms of pneumonia which include:

  • Chest pain when breathing or coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Fever, sweating and chills
  • Low body temperature
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea

In seniors, an increasingly common symptom of pneumonia is confusion or changes in mental awareness. In terms of complications, pneumonia in the elderly can lead to several potentially severe health complications. These include:

  • Bacteremia: A bacterial infection that can invade the body’s organs
  • Pleurisy and Empyema: Inflammation of the lining of the lungs and infection of inflammatory fluids.
  • Lung Abscess: A pus-filled cavity in the infected lung area
  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): When the lungs become severely injured from pneumonia, respiratory failure may occur.

The pneumonia vaccine is an essential for seniors. There are different kinds of pneumonia shots for seniors, and the CDC recommends two pneumococcal vaccines for all adults 65 years or older: 

  • PCV13 (Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine): Protects against 13 strains of pneumococcal bacteria.
  • PPSV23 (Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine): Protects against 23 strains of pneumococcal bacteria.


What are some common side effects of these vaccines?

Close up of an arm experiencing redness post vaccination

For most of the above vaccines, you might experience redness/swelling from the shot, headache, chills, nausea, muscle aches and tiredness.  

These vaccines address the most common, preventable diseases that affect older adults annually. Your doctor can advise on any other vaccines that may be needed. At your next appointment, be sure to ask your doctor which vaccines are right for you. 

Stay informed on the key differences between COVID-19 and the flu so you can know what to look out for.

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