While “Have you had your flu shot?” is a common question this time of year, experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham say there are other vaccinations that are important, including a pneumonia shot.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 62.3 percent of adults 65 years and older have never received a pneumococcal vaccination. UAB Family Nurse Practitioner Program Manager D’Ann Somerall says that statistic needs to be much lower.
“Pneumonia can be devastating to older adults, especially those with co-morbidities,” said Somerall, a UAB School of Nursing educator and a nurse practitioner at the UAB School of Nursing Foundry Clinic in Bessemer, Ala. “Generally what happens when older adults get pneumonia is that it doesn’t clear for months. It can lead to immobility, primarily because they can’t breathe well.”
For a smoker 65 or older who is already compromised with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or has bronchitis or asthma, the risks a pneumonia infection can bring could be shattering.
“When people with those conditions get pneumonia, it’s so debilitating to them that we often are not able to get them well,” Somerall said.
Asking a physician about which vaccinations are right is important at any age, says Stephen Russell, M.D., physician in the UAB School of Medicine’s Division of General Internal Medicine.
“There are several immunizations that are valuable to people at different stages of their lives,” Russell said. “We recommend a tetanus booster every 10 years, for example. Since 2006, there is a new one with a whooping cough booster called T-Dap. Even though whooping cough is less an issue for adults, it is an issue for the children adults may be around. So when adults get this booster, they are also protecting their children from whooping cough.”
Russell says men and women in their 20s should talk to their doctors about the HPV vaccine. The CDC now recommends HPV vaccination for preteen girls and boys at age 11 or 12, as well as teen boys and girls who did not get the vaccine when they were younger. In fact, young women up to age 26 and young men through age 21 who have not been exposed to HPV are encouraged to get a vaccination.
As for older adults, Russell says men and women older than 60 should ask a physician about the shingles vaccine. Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox.
The CDC says nearly one out of every three people in the United States will develop shingles, and the risk of getting the disease increases as a person gets older. In fact, about half of all cases occur in men and women who are 60 years of age or older.
“The pain and blisterlike sores that form can be excruciating,” Russell said. “The natural immune system wanes after age 65, so we now try to capture people at age 60 for the shingles vaccine.”
Somerall and Russell encourage everyone to schedule a yearly checkup with his or her primary care physician and ask about vaccination needs. They also advise people against waiting a long time before calling to make an appointment with a physician when they get sick — especially during cold and flu season.
“Patients should never hesitate to call a provider if they are sick,” Somerall said. “When you are 60 or older, your immune system just doesn’t enable you to kick the common cold as easily as you did when you were 30. Don’t be afraid to make an appointment and find out what’s wrong. Most conditions are much easier to tackle if treated early.”