You know that kids need a host of shots, but just because you’re long past the pint-sized stage doesn’t mean you can skip the needle entirely. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that adults aged 50 and up get four separate vaccines to protect against illnesses that hit older people particularly hard.
With flu season at its peak in January and February, hopefully you’ve already gotten your shot for this year. (If not, you’ve still got time, doctors say.) But most older people skip the other vaccines, according to CDC research, which puts them at greater risk for everything from tetanus to pneumonia.
“As we get older, our immune system isn’t as well-functioning,” says Ada Stewart, M.D., a family physician in Columbia, S.C., and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. That not only increases the danger that you’ll contract a variety of
Make sure you’re up to date on these shots, which—with the exception of the shingles vaccine—will typically be fully covered by most insurance plans, with no copay or coinsurance due, as long as you see an in-network provider. Check with your insurance provider for specific coverage details.
Protect yourself against shingles
What to ask
Who should get it: Anyone 50 or older.
Why you need it: Shingles is a painful rash with blisters caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Your risk of developing shingles increases with age and if you’ve had chickenpox. Plus, after having shingles, some people experience long-lasting and sometimes severe pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which can persist for months or even years.
What’s involved: Two doses, two to six months apart.
What else you need to know: The CDC recommends you get Shingrix even if you previously got Zostavax, an older shingles immunization. Ditto if you already had shingles or are not sure if you had chickenpox.
Most private insurance plans will fully cover the shingles vaccine as preventive care. But the rules are different under Medicare, which treats the shot as a prescription drug, subject to the same coverage and costs as other medicines under Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage plans.
If you’re on Medicare and haven’t yet met your deductible, that could leave you on the hook for the full cost, typically around $200.
One other important note: The vaccine has been in short supply lately, so you may have to put your name on a waiting list with your doctor or pharmacy to receive it. Or you can search here for places in your area that currently have Shingrix in stock.
Ward off pneumonia and related diseases
What to ask for: Prevnar 13 (also known as PCV13) and Pneumovax (PPSV23)—two separate vaccines, which, when combined, provide greater protection again the pneumococcal bacteria that cause pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections than either shot alone.
Who should get it: Anyone 65 or older. No matter what your age, you are also a candidate for the vaccine if you have chronic liver, heart or kidney disease, HIV, diabetes, or alcoholism, or if you have cochlear implants or have had your spleen removed, Stewart says.
Why you need it: Older adults are more likely to come down with pneumonia and related illnesses. Once contracted, they’re also more prone to develop complications that can lead to serious health problems, hospitalization, and even death.
What’s involved: Two shots, taken a year apart.
Boost your immunity to tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis
What to ask for: the Tdap vaccine or a Td booster shot.
Who should get it: You need the Tdap—a booster shot for the childhood DTaP vaccine—if you never got the vaccine as a teenager, especially if you have contact with infants or young children. If you got a Tdap more than 10 years ago, you need a booster shot for tetanus and diphtheria only (Td).
What’s involved: A one-time shot for Tdap, and a Td booster every 10 years.
Why you need it: For people over 50, the shot can be important to guard against spreading disease to a baby, such as a grandchild. Infants under six months of age are at the greatest risk of complications from pertussis, also known as whooping cough, which can be life-threatening, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What else you need to know: After receiving the vaccine, you should wait at least two weeks before you have any contact with infants, the CDC says.
Get a better flu shot
What to ask for: Any one of three souped-up vaccines that provide extra protection against the flu. They are Fluzone High-Dose, which contains four times the amount of antigen (the substance that prompts your body to make antibodies against the disease) as a regular flu shot; FLUAD, which helps create a stronger immune response; and quadrivalent vaccines, which protect against four strains of flu rather than the usual three.
Who should get it: The CDC recommends that everyone older than six months get an annual flu shot and that people 65 and older get one of the stronger vaccines.
What’s involved: One shot a year, which the CDC recommends you get by the end of October.
What if you’re late to the party? Not to worry.
Getting it a little late is actually better than the other way around. Some studies show that the vaccine’s protection starts to wear off in four to six months, especially in older adults. So if you get the shot too early, the protection may not last the entire flu season.
Why you need it: When you’re older, your chances of coming down with the flu are greater and, if you do get it, you’re likely to get sicker. People 65-plus account for 60% of flu-related hospitalizations, according to the CDC.
What else you need to know: Though it varies from year to year, the regular flu shot is generally only 40% to 60% effective. Even the new stronger varieties don’t guarantee you won’t get sick.
Still, some protection is better than none, says Stewart. “You could walk outside and get hit by a car, so you walk on the sidewalk to prevent that from happening,” she says. “It’s the same with the flu shot.”