Ask the Expert: Adult Immunizations

Dr. Michael Martin
Dr. Michael Martin, a pediatrician affiliated with Sharp HealthCare, answers common questions about adult immunizations.

What are the most important vaccines for adults?
Immunizations aren’t just for kids; there’s a number that are needed in adulthood, too. You need to consider a tetanus booster; you also need to consider a one-time whooping cough booster, which we’re now using.

Are there vaccines that women should get?
For young healthy women, I think it’s smart to consider the vaccine for human papillomavirus to prevent cervical cancer.

What vaccines should those over 65 get?
Once you are 65 you need to consider a pneumonia vaccine. And once you are 60 years old, you need to consider a shingles vaccine.

What is shingles?
Shingles is a chicken pox reactivation. As we get older, our immunity against chicken pox may wear off, we may get re-exposed, and you get a very uncomfortable, painful, fiery rash that can affect a large part of your body. The rash will eventually go away, the pain that’s caused by the nerve irritation from it can last for six to nine months.

Do I need to worry about side effects from these vaccines?
Most vaccination side effects are simply a sore arm for about 24 hours, maybe a low-grade fever, maybe some flulike symptoms, but those go away, and contrast that against the risk of getting something like tetanus, which can be life threatening — I’ll take the sore arm and the fever for 24 hours.

What about a tetanus shot?
Tetanus is a terrible disease; it’s driven by a bacteria where if you step on a rusty nail, if you get cut with a dirty knife, you can get terrible muscle spasms, you can get high fever, ultimately it can cause death. So this is one you want to make sure you get at least every 10 years.

What about the flu vaccine?
Everybody should get in and see their doctor for their flu vaccine this year, especially if you have any chronic medical condition. 

Flu season coincides with the late fall and winter. Flu shots typically become available in October. The flu shot is exceptionally important for all patients over the age of 65. That said, even if you’re young and healthy, I still think it’s a good idea because, if you get the flu, you are miserable for a week — high fever, terrible muscle aches, many more complications, possible pneumonia, possible hospitalization. All of these are especially common in the elderly.

What vaccines should I get if I'm planning to travel abroad?
I do a lot of travel medicine and I see a lot of patients who come in for vaccines prior to going to exotic countries. There are very serious illnesses you can get in other countries — potentially fatal illnesses. And the simple fact is, what you need differs for each country you’re going to visit. You definitely need to see your doctor before you go on any international trip.

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