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I know a retired police officer who spent weeks in the hospital with meningitis. I know a school teacher who fell ill with whooping cough. I know a grandmother who got chickenpox – in her 70s. And I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve seen hospitalized with the flu.
I met these patients during the decade I worked in an internal medicine practice. They all share something in common: hospital bills, doctor expenses, and missed work that could have been avoided if they’d been vaccinated.
Oh, and they could have died from their infections. According to the American Academy of Microbiology, 40,000 adults in the United States die from vaccine-preventable infections every year.
Many of us received mandatory vaccines as children, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re protected after age 18. As the Yale School of Medicine explains…
“Adults who have never received childhood vaccinations can experience serious complications from these diseases as an adult. And for adults who did receive all the recommended vaccines as children, immunity against some diseases can gradually fade away over the years, meaning that booster shots are needed.”
Depending on your age, it’s also possible that certain vaccines for preventable infections weren’t available when you were a child, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Plus, as you age, you become more susceptible to infection in general.
Adult vaccines include…
- Influenza vaccine, aka “the flu shot”
- Pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against three serious and possibly fatal infections caused by a bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae: pneumonia, meningitis (an infection of the brain’s lining and spinal cord), and septicemia (a blood infection)
- Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine or booster
- Herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine, aka “Zostavax,” which protects against a painful rash caused by the varicella-zoster (chickenpox) virus
- Varicella zoster (chickenpox) vaccine
- Measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, aka “MMR vaccine”
- Tetanus (lockjaw) vaccine or booster
- Diphtheria vaccine or booster, which protects against the bacteria Corynebacterium diphtheriae that causes this upper-respiratory infection
- Hepatitis A vaccine
- Hepatitis B vaccine
- Human papillomavirus vaccine, aka “HPV vaccine,” which protects against a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer
How to protect yourself – and your wallet
Most experts would probably tell you to start with a visit to your doctor. I wouldn’t.
To get the best medical care for the least amount of money, you have to do your homework first. (See 6 Tips to Save Time and Money at the Doctor’s Office.) With vaccines, this means two steps: knowing your history and educating yourself.
First, figure out what vaccines or boosters you’ve received as a child or an adult. Vaccines can save you money, but there’s no sense paying for ones you already received. Plus, when you do talk to your doctor about vaccines, he’ll need to know which ones you’ve received and roughly when.
Second, educate yourself. Learn what vaccines the experts suggest for your age bracket. Find out if you have any vaccine contraindications, which are certain allergies, medical conditions, and situations like pregnancy that may preclude you from receiving certain vaccines. Other situations – like traveling abroad, living in a college dorm, being over or under a certain age, or working in certain professions – make vaccines especially critical.
As part of an effort to better educate the public, the CDC and a few nonprofit medical organizations have published everything you need to know about adult vaccines online…
- The CDC’s “Recommended Immunizations for Adults” schedule
- The CDC’s “Recommended Adult Immunization Schedule – United States – 2012,” which is meant for doctors but will also teach you a lot
- The Immunization Action Coalition’s “Vaccines for Adults” schedule
- The CDC’s “What Vaccines Do You Need?” questionnaire
- The Immunization Action Coalition’s “Screening Questionnaire for Adult Immunization”
- The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases’ website
- WebMD’s Vaccines Health Center website
Lastly, don’t forget to take your homework with you when you see your doctor about vaccines. If you’re looking for a new doctor or want to see an infectious disease specialist, first check out The Right Way to Pick a Doctor.