“Grandparents want what’s best for their grandchildren,” said Katharina Hathaway, MD, a family physician in Austin and a member of TMA’s Be Wise — Immunize Physician Advisory Panel. “Vaccinations can help in two very important ways: preventing grandparents from passing on a potentially deadly illness to a baby and keeping grandparents healthy to keep up with their grandkids.”
Adults may need as many as 10 vaccinations, but two in particular are recommended for seniors: pneumococcal, which prevents infections in the lungs and bloodstream, and meningitis; and zoster, which protects against shingles, a painful rash. Two others are recommended for all adults: a yearly flu shot and a vaccination for pertussis (whooping cough).
Babies under 1 year old are at high risk for catching whooping cough. It is so severe in infants that more than half of babies who get it end up in the hospital with complications like pneumonia. And many of whooping cough’s tiny victims die.
Babies require a series of pertussis vaccinations, so they’re not fully protected until close to 18 months of age. Dr. Hathaway said grandparents can avoid passing on the highly contagious yet preventable whooping cough to newborns by getting vaccinated.
A Tdap vaccination (a combination vaccination that protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) is recommended for anyone who will be around a baby, including grandparents. Adolescents and adults should get the shot at least two weeks before visiting the baby to have full protection. Physicians call it “cocooning,” vaccinating those who will be near a vulnerable newborn to surround the infant in a vaccination “cocoon.”
“As we get older, our immune systems tend to weaken,” said Dr. Hathaway. “That means adults need a vaccine boost because they are more prone to catching certain diseases, several of which you can prevent through vaccination.”
Pneumococcal pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, affects about 1 million Americans each year, and sends about half of them to the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Experts recommend a pneumococcal shot for adults over 65 years and for younger adults with certain health conditions.
A yearly influenza vaccination is recommended for anyone over six months of age. Influenza, or seasonal flu, is especially serious for adults over 65. The CDC says nearly three-quarters of people hospitalized with flu-related illness are 65 or older, and most flu deaths are among elderly people. Two flu vaccines are available for that age group: the regular flu shot or a high-dose version with four times the protection. Ask your doctor which is right for you.
People who have had chickenpox are at risk for getting shingles because the same virus causes both illnesses. Anyone can get shingles after having chickenpox, but the risk increases with age. About half of the 1 million cases each year are in adults age 60 or older, reports the CDC. The zoster vaccine is recommended for adults in this age group to help prevent shingles.
Physicians suggest you check with your doctor to see if your vaccinations are up to date. TMA has published a fact sheet about vaccinations for adults, in English and Spanish.