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August is National Immunization Awareness Month, an observance held to raise awareness about the important role vaccinations play in preventing serious illnesses and saving lives. Many people associate immunizations with infants and young children, but vaccines are not just for kids. Older adults have some important ones they need, too.
As we age, our immune system becomes weaker. That puts us at increased risk for illnesses ranging from pneumonia to shingles and the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 70,000 adults lose their life each year from vaccine-preventable illnesses. The key is knowing which immunizations you need and how often.
The CDC suggests that seniors talk with their physician about several immunizations, such as:
Influenza can be a serious health problem for people of all ages, but seniors are at an especially high risk. Almost 90 percent of flu-related deaths each year are in adults over the age of 65. This age group also accounts for more than half of all influenza-related hospital admissions.
An annual vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu. If a senior does contract the virus, the vaccine may help minimize the severity of the symptoms. Experts suggest being vaccinated in October before flu season typically begins.
Pneumonia is another serious health risk for older adults. It is responsible for nearly 50,000 senior deaths each year. It is also the leading cause of hospitalization in Americans over the age of 65.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices revised the pneumonia vaccination recommendation in 2015. They now recommend seniors get two vaccines one year apart to better protect them from sepsis (a bacterial infection in the blood), meningitis, and pneumonia.
The Prevnar 13 vaccine is generally given to older adults first, followed by the Pneumovax 23 vaccine 12 months later. The good news is that Medicare recently began paying for both shots for most Medicare recipients.
Shingles is a very painful skin rash caused by the chickenpox virus. It causes skin blisters that can take several weeks or even months to heal.
In 2017, the CDC changed its recommendation on what type of shingles vaccine older adults should receive. They now suggest adults age 50 and over ask their physician for the Shingrix vaccine instead of the less effective Zostavax immunization.
Shingrix is more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles, as well as a painful complication known as postherpetic neuralgia. By contrast, Zostavax has only a 51 percent rate of shingles prevention.
Tdap stands for tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis. It is a booster for adults who might not have received the DTP vaccine when they were a child. It is a one-time shot that can guard against pertussis, also known as whopping cough, which can be deadly in infants.
Hepatitis A and B
This vaccine is one physicians often recommend to adults who live in senior housing or are exposed to large groups of people on a routine basis. People with some chronic health conditions might also be encouraged to receive this vaccine.
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