Skip to main content

Vaccinations and Older Adults

Which vaccines do older adults need?

As you get older, your doctor may recommend more vaccinations, also known as shots or immunizations, to help prevent certain illnesses.

Talk with your doctor about which of the following vaccines you need. Make sure to protect yourself as much as possible by keeping your vaccinations up to date.

COVID-19 vaccines

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory disease that causes symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath. It can lead to serious illness and death. Studies show that COVID-19 vaccines are effective at keeping people from getting COVID-19. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine will also help keep you from getting seriously ill even if you do get COVID-19. We are still learning how effective COVID-19 vaccines are against new variants of the virus. Read more about COVID-10 vaccine effectiveness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age 5 and older get vaccinated. Booster vaccines are also recommended for adults age 18 and older. Contact your local health department or use to find more information on COVID-19 vaccination in your area. Learn more about the new vaccines to prevent COVID-19.

Flu vaccines for older adults

Older African American couple discuss vaccinations with their doctorFlu — short for influenza — is a virus that can cause fever, chills, sore throat, stuffy nose, headache, and muscle aches. Flu is very serious when it gets in your lungs. Older adults are at a higher risk for developing serious complications from the flu, such as pneumonia.

The flu is easy to pass from person to person. The virus also changes over time, which means you can get it again. To ensure flu vaccines remain effective, the vaccine is updated every year.

Everyone age 6 months and older should get an annual flu vaccine, but the protection from a flu vaccine can lessen with time, especially in older adults. Still, you are less likely to become seriously ill or hospitalized because of the flu if you get the vaccine. A flu vaccine is especially important if you have a chronic health condition such as heart disease or diabetes.

You should get your vaccine ideally by the end of October each year so you are protected when the flu season starts. It takes at least two weeks for the vaccine to be effective. However, if you have not received your flu vaccine by the end of October, it’s not too late as flu season typically peaks in December or January. As long as the flu virus is spreading, getting vaccinated will help protect you.

There are flu vaccines designed specifically for people age 65 and older. Medicare will pay for the vaccine, and so will private health insurance plans. You can get a flu vaccine at your doctor's office or local health department, as well as at some grocery and drug stores. The vaccine ingredients are the same wherever you receive it.

Vaccines to help prevent pneumonia

Pneumococcal disease is a serious infection that spreads from person to person by air. It often causes pneumonia in the lungs and it can affect other parts of the body.

There are two pneumococcal vaccines: PPSV23 and PCV13. According to the CDC, adults who are age 65 and older should get the PPSV23 vaccine. Some older adults may also need the PCV13 vaccine. Talk with your health care professional to find out if you need both pneumococcal vaccines.

Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccines

Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis are serious diseases that can lead to death.

  • Tetanus (sometimes called lockjaw) is caused by bacteria found in soil, dust, and manure. It enters the body through cuts in the skin.
  • Diphtheria, also caused by bacteria, is a serious illness that can affect the tonsils, throat, nose, or skin. It can spread from person to person.
  • Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is caused by bacteria. It is a serious illness that causes uncontrollable, violent coughing fits that make it hard to breathe. It can spread from person to person.

Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Most people get vaccinated as children, but you also need booster shots as you get older to stay best protected against these diseases. The CDC recommends that adults get a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) or Td (tetanus, diphtheria) booster shot every 10 years. Ask your doctor when you need your booster shot.

Shingles vaccine for older adults

Shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox. If you had chickenpox, the virus is still in your body. The virus could become active again and cause shingles.

Shingles affects the nerves. Common symptoms include burning, shooting pain, tingling, and/or itching, as well as a rash with fluid-filled blisters. Even when the rash disappears, the pain can remain. This is called post-herpetic neuralgia, or PHN.

The shingles vaccine is safe and it may keep you from getting shingles and PHN. Healthy adults age 50 and older should get vaccinated with the shingles vaccine, which is given in two doses. (Zostavax, an earlier shingles vaccine, is no longer available in the United States.)

You should get a shingles shot even if you have already had chickenpox, the chickenpox vaccine, or shingles, received Zostavax, or don’t remember having had chickenpox. However, you should not get a vaccine if you currently have shingles, are sick or have a fever, have a weakened immune system, or have had an allergic reaction to Shingrix. Check with your doctor if you are not sure what to do.

You can get the shingles vaccine at your doctor’s office and at some pharmacies. Medicare Part D and private health insurance plans may cover some or all of the cost. Check with Medicare or your health plan to find out if it is covered.

Travel vaccines

Check with your doctor or local health department about vaccines you may need if traveling to other countries. Sometimes a series of shots is needed. It's best to get them at least four to six weeks before you travel to allow time to build up immunity and get the best protection, particularly from those that may require multiple doses. For more information, visit the CDC website or call its information line for international travelers at 800-232-4636.

What are some side effects of getting a vaccine?

Common side effects for all these vaccines are mild and may include pain, swelling, or redness where the vaccine was given.

Before getting any vaccine, talk with your doctor about your health history, including past illnesses and treatments, as well as any allergies.

It's a good idea to keep your own vaccination record, listing the types and dates of your shots, along with any side effects or problems.

Learn more about vaccine safety and vaccine side effects.

For more information about shots and vaccines

American Lung Association

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
888-232-6348 (TTY)

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
800-877-8339 (TTY) 

This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date.