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Immunizations--most often associated with childhood--are vaccination shots given to prevent infectious diseases. However, even adults can use a refresher course on which immunizations they need, and when, to stay healthy. Adult immunizations are one important way to avoid spreading serious preventable illnesses to others, including your own children and within your community.
What do you need?
We've highlighted some of the most critical vaccinations all adults should consider.
Influenza: In the US and Europe, "the flu" season runs from fall into winter, and through early spring. The flu virus comes around every year but changes (mutates) over time, which means last year's vaccination won't protect against this year's bug.
Why vaccinate? Even if the flu isn't deadly serious for most healthy adults, who wants to be out for a week or more with fever, chills, aches, and a cough? Plus you're protecting older adults and young children, for whom influenza can lead to serious complications, including pneumonia and even death. Full immunity can take a few weeks to develop; aim to get your flu shot in early fall, so you're most protected during the peak flu months of late winter.
Pertussis ("Whooping Cough"): When adults get pertussis, they don't tend to get the "whoop" in the cough that characterizes the disease in children, so they may not know they have it. While pertussis infection is generally not life-threatening for adults, they can spread it to children, who may get very sick.
Why vaccinate? It is estimated that only 8% of adults are current on their pertussis vaccine, and for infants under one year--a group to which adults easily can spread the disease--pertussis can be deadly. A rise in pertussis cases in recent years, including some deaths in infants, highlights how important it is that we all stay up-to-date on this immunization
Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR): These three diseases are spread through the air when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. They are highly contagious and infectious. Vaccination has been very effective at combating measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles), so very few people are aware of the serious health consequences of being infected with one of these viruses.
Why vaccinate? Measles can lead to pneumonia and ear infections, with permanent hearing loss. Mumps can lead to meningitis (infection and inflammation of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord). Rubella tends to be non-life-threatening in older adults, but if spread to a pregnant woman, it can lead to severe birth defects in her baby. If you were born after 1957, the CDC recommends you receive an MMR vaccine booster as an adult.
Other vaccinations to consider
If you're a world traveler, you may need additional vaccinations. Before you book your tickets to a foreign country, ask your doctor in advance if any of the locations you are visiting require vaccinations to protect your health. Consider the following:
Typhoid, hepatitis A and B, Japanese encephalitis, meningitis, and yellow fever: Depending on where you go, and the types of adventures you seek out, you may need to consider being vaccinated against these diseases.
Rabies: Most travel clinics do not routinely vaccinate against rabies, but if you are traveling to a rabies-endemic area and may be exposed to wildlife or stray domestic animals, ask your doctor if you need a rabies vaccine as well.
Malaria: There is no vaccine against malaria at this time, but medications can be taken before and during your trip to lessen the chances you develop this very serious parasitic infection.
Shingles: The virus that causes childhood chicken pox can stay dormant in the body and being reactivated years later, causing shingles. Shingles leads to extremely painful sores on the skin, and some people develop post-infection nerve pain (neuralgia) that can linger for months or years. You only need this vaccine if you are over age 60 and have had chicken pox or been exposed to the virus at some point in your life.
Nearly all insurers cover the cost of a flu vaccine, but check with your insurance about additional immunizations. Talk to your doctor to determine which vaccines make the most sense for you. You may balk at paying for a vaccination out of pocket, but many of them can save lot of pain and suffering later, and may even save money in the co-pays and doctor's fees you won't pay because you didn't get sick.
To keep track of vaccinations and maximize their effectiveness:
Be a regular. Try to visit the same pharmacy every year so they have a full record of which vaccinations you've received and when.
Take note. Mark your vaccinations in your calendar. High-tech folks can set a reminder alarm. The technically challenged should file the information in a health folder.
Share information. Tell your doctor or pharmacist if you have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, or if you take medications that can affect the immune system.
Be "pro-" biotic. Research suggests that probiotic supplements may boost immune response to vaccination (Bifidobacteriumanimalis subspecies lactis [BB-12] and Lactobacillus paracasei subspecies paracasei [L. casei 431] appear to work best). For best effect take them daily for a few days to a couple of weeks prior to vaccination, and continue for several weeks after. If you are immune-compromised or have other serious health conditions, ask your doctor if probiotics are safe for you.
Take a hike. Regular exercise can boost the effectiveness of vaccinations.
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.
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