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Shots for Safety



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Shots, or immunizations, are not just for infants and children. Adults also need to be vaccinated from time to time to be protected against serious infectious diseases. In fact, some shots are more important for adults than for children. Every year, thousands of older people die needlessly.

The Public Health Service strongly encourages older adults to be immunized against influenza, pneumococcal disease (especially pneumonia), tetanus, and diphtheria.


Usually called the flu, influenza is a highly contagious disease that causes a variety of symptoms, including fever, aches and pains, sore throat, runny nose, and chills. When older people get the flu, they are more likely to get pneumonia, lose water (dehydration), or lose weight.

A new flu vaccine is made each year because the influenza virus tends to change each flu season. For this reason, it is necessary to get a yearly flu shot. To give your body time to build the proper defense, it is important to get a flu shot by mid-November, before the flu season usually starts.

Although side effects from flu shots are slight for most people, there may be a brief, low-grade fever and some minor aches and pains. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recent flu vaccines have not caused serious side effects.

In addition to the flu shot, two anti-viral drugs--amantadine and rimantadine--can prevent or lessen infection by certain flu strains. These drugs can be used by people who never had the flu vaccine or as extra protection by those who have been immunized. They can be taken soon after the early signs of flu are felt. While they donít actually prevent infection, they can reduce fever and other flu symptoms.

Pneumococcal Disease

Pneumococcal bacteria can cause a number of infections, including those affecting the lungs (pneumonia), the blood (bacteremia), or the covering of the brain (meningitis). Older people are two to three times more likely than younger people to suffer from pneumococcal disease. It can be much more severe in older adults.

Tetanus and Diptheria

Most people have been immunized against tetanus (sometimes called lockjaw) and diphtheria (a bacterial disease affecting the throat and windpipe). A booster shot is needed every 10 years to keep you protected from these rare but dangerous illnesses. During everyday activities (such as gardening or outside recreation), the tetanus bacteria can enter a break in the skin and cause infection. It is important to have a booster shot if you have a severe cut or puncture wound.

In most cases, the tetanus shot also includes the diphtheria vaccine. The immunity for diphtheria also lasts 10 years. The side effects of this shot are minor (soreness and a slight fever). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests the use of mid-decade (e.g., 45, 55, etc.) birthdays as regular dates to review adult immunizations.

Other Immunizations

The Public Health Service also recommends certain people at risk be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, and hepatitis B. Adults at risk include those who work on college campuses, at vocational training centers, and in the health care field. Ask your doctor or local health department if you need to have these shots.

If you are planning to travel abroad, check with your doctor or local health department about shots that may be required or highly recommended. Since some immunizations involve a series of shots, it is best to arrange to get them within 6 months of your trip.

Keeping a Shot Record

It is helpful to keep a personal immunization record with the types and dates of shots you have received, as well as any side effects or problems that you had. The medical record in your doctorís office should also be kept up-to-date.

Widespread use of vaccines can reduce the risk of developing a number of contagious diseases that seriously affect older people. You can protect yourself against these illnesses by including vaccinations as part of your regular health care.


For a free copy of the booklet Immunization of Adults: A Call to Action, contact:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Immunization Program
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333

For a free copy of the booklet Flu, contact:

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892



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