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Vaccinations and Older Adults

Which vaccines do older adults need?

As you get older, a health care provider may recommend vaccinations, also known as shots or immunizations, to help prevent certain illnesses.

Talk with a doctor or pharmacist 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

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that causes symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Older adults are more likely than younger people to get very sick from COVID-19. The disease can lead to serious illness and death.

Studies show that COVID-19 vaccines reduce the risk of getting this disease. The vaccine will also help keep you from getting seriously ill or having to go to the hospital 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 older adults stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, including booster shots. Read more about COVID-19 vaccines from the CDC. Contact your local health department or visit Vaccines.gov to find out where you can get vaccinated.

Flu vaccine for older adults

Older African American couple discuss vaccinations with their doctor

Flu — 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 with 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.

Ideally, you should get your vaccine 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 — 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 a doctor's office or local health department, as well as at some grocery stores, drug stores, and pharmacies. 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. Older adults are at higher risk than younger people of getting very sick or dying from pneumococcal disease.

The CDC recommends that all adults 65 and older get pneumococcal vaccination. This vaccine will help protect you from getting a serious infection, including pneumonia. There are two types of pneumococcal vaccine available (PPSV23 and PCV13). Talk with a health care provider to find out which one is best for you, or if you need both.

Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccines

Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis are diseases caused by bacteria that can lead to serious illness and death.

  • Tetanus (sometimes called lockjaw) is caused by bacteria found in soil, dust, and manure. It can enter the body through a deep cut or burn.
  • Diphtheria 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, 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 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 a health care provider 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. As you get older, 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, Shingrix, which is given in two doses. (Zostavax, an earlier shingles vaccine, is no longer available in the United States.)

You should get a shingles vaccine even if you’ve already had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, or if you don't remember whether you had chickenpox. You should also get the shingles vaccine if you've already had shingles or received Zostavax. 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 a health care provider if you are not sure what to do.

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

Travel vaccines

Check with a doctor, a pharmacist, or your local health department about vaccines you need if you're planning to travel to other countries. The vaccines that are required and recommended are based on your destination, planned activities, and medical history. Sometimes multiple vaccines or doses are 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 at 800-232-4636.

Vaccine safety and side effects

Vaccines are very safe, and they can help keep you from getting serious or life-threatening diseases. The most 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 a doctor or pharmacist about your health history, including past illnesses and treatments, as well as any allergies. A health care provider can address any concerns you have.

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 side effects.

For more information about shots and vaccines

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
800-232-4636
888-232-6348 (TTY)
cdcinfo@cdc.gov
www.cdc.gov

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
301-592-8573
nhlbiinfo@nhlbi.nih.gov
www.nhlbi.nih.gov

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
866-284-4107
800-877-8339 (TTY)
ocpostoffice@niaid.nih.gov
www.niaid.nih.gov 

Vaccines.gov
800-232-0233
888-720-7489 (TTY)
www.vaccines.gov

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.