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The Truth About Vaccines

August 26, 2015

We answer four common questions about the shots that grown-ups need, but don’t always get

Do you skip vaccines because you don’t think you still need them or you’re worried about their safety? Many of us aren’t getting the protection we need, according to infectious-disease experts. “Each year, at least 30,000 people die from complications related to vaccine-preventable diseases,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. “Getting the right shots doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get sick, but it will significantly improve your odds.” Here are answers to four common questions about vaccines:
I was fully vaccinated as a child. Why do I need more vaccines now?
Over time you may lose the ability to fend off diseases you were vaccinated against earlier. Some adult vaccines are boosters, building your immunity against those illnesses. Others protect against diseases that are more common in adulthood
All adults should have these key vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): an annual flu shot; a Td booster every 10 years to ward off tetanus and diphtheria; a zoster vaccine at age 60 to guard against shingles; and a pneumococcal vaccine at age 65 to protect against a type of pneumonia. “If you’re unsure if your shots are up to date, it’s best to get vaccinated,” Lipman says. “It’s better to get revaccinated than go without protection.”
Are vaccines less effective for me now that I’m older?
Probably. Vaccines work by tricking the immune system into producing disease-fighting proteins called antibodies. “Older people don’t form antibodies as well as younger people, so the older you are, the less effective that vaccine is going to be,” Lipman explains. But even if a vaccine is only 50 percent effective in preventing disease, he says, “if you do get sick, you will likely have a milder case.” That’s important because as we age, illnesses can hit harder and lead to more complications.
Every time I get a flu shot I feel lousy afterward. Is the shot giving me the flu?
A flu shot might cause mild side effects such as a sore arm, redness and swelling at the injection site, and even a slight fever, but it’s unlikely that any vaccine will really make you sick. “To put to rest an old myth,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., “you cannot get flu from the flu vaccine.” If you do get sick after being vaccinated, it’s probably a coincidence, Schaffner says. Most flu shots are given from September to December, when respiratory infections are common.
Once in a while, though, a vaccine does cause serious side effects. For example, according to the CDC, about one in a million people develops Guillain-Barré syndrome after a flu shot. That can cause temporary muscle weakness and tingling, breathing difficulties, and in rare cases, permanent paralysis. But a large 2013 study found that the flu itself is linked to a higher risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome than the vaccine.
My insurance won’t cover the shingles vaccine until I’m 60. Should I get it earlier?
Schaffner advises holding off until 60 on the zoster vaccine, which protects against shingles. The infection occurs when a dormant chickenpox virus “wakes up,” causing a burning, stinging rash and nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN) that can linger long after the rash. The vaccine cuts shingles risk by half and the odds of PHN by almost 70 percent.
Although we’re most likely to develop shingles after age 60, some people come down with it earlier. But a vaccine before 60 isn’t an ideal solution because after five years, the shot’s strength begins to wear off—and there’s no evidence yet that a booster works. In addition, the vaccine appears to be most effective between the ages of 60 and 69. “It looks like the shingles vaccine is like a pistol with one bullet,” Schaffner says. “Do you fire it at 40 or 50? We shoot it at 60 because that will give you the most protection when you’re at the greatest risk of the disease.”
If you were unlucky enough to get shingles before age 60, Schaffner advises that you get vaccinated at 60 anyway. Although there’s no evidence that the vaccine will prevent a recurrence, he says, “it won’t harm you and might help you.”
At Boca Regional Urgent Care you can get most vaccines, including Flu shots, Pneumonia shots, Shingles shots, Tetanus shots and all travel shots including Yellow Fever.
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