While people of all ages get sick, older adults and young infants are particularly vulnerable to potentially serious diseases. Getting vaccinated is one of the best ways to ensure you and your grandkids are as protected as possible.
Whether you’re about to meet your first grandchild or your tenth, here are five vaccines you should talk to your doctor about getting beforehand.
Contrary to what many people believe, the flu is not a stomach bug or a bad cold. It is a dangerous—and all too often fatal—respiratory virus.
Anywhere from 12,000 to 56,000 people die due to flu each year in the United States, and often hundreds of thousands are hospitalized. Many of these deaths are in those with pre-existing medical conditions, but a large number are in previously healthy individuals.
The flu is a big deal. So much so that the flu vaccine is currently the only vaccine routinely recommended for everyone over 6 months old, with very few exceptions.
Grandparents, in particular, should get the flu vaccine every year, not just to protect themselves, but also to protect the youngest members of their families. Until babies receive their first dose at 6 months, they are at the mercy of those around them to get vaccinated to keep them safe. But because the flu can also be dangerous in older adults, the annual flu vaccine is a win-win.
Even if it’s not flu season, you should still be sure you’ve had a flu shot within the past 12 months, especially if you’re going to be around kids under the age of 2, as influenza viruses can circulate year-round.
Pertussis Vaccine aka Tdap
If you have a new grandchild on the way, you might have already been asked to get the Tdap vaccine, which can protect against three diseases, including pertussis or “whooping cough.”
Pertussis is frequently underdiagnosed in adults because it tends to have milder symptoms outside of childhood. Many older individuals don’t realize they’re infected, often dismissing any signs of infection as simply allergies. But even if symptoms are mild or completely absent, you can still pass the bacteria on to other people, including to vulnerable newborns for whom pertussis can be dangerous. Roughly half of all babies under a year old who get pertussis have to be hospitalized.
The first dose of the pertussis vaccine is given at 2 months of age, but the series includes multiple doses over a span of years, and it’s not 100 percent effective—a small number of vaccinated infants can still get sick.
That’s where grandparents—and everyone in the family—getting vaccinated comes into play. After all, if you protect yourself, you will be better able to protect your grandchildren.
As a bonus, this vaccine also serves as your tetanus booster, which all adults should get every 10 years or so, regardless of grandparent status.
While pertussis is commonly transmitted from adults to small kids, pneumococcus—a bacterium that can cause pneumonia, among other things—can often be passed from young kids to older adults.
In children, pneumococcus can lead to mild illnesses like ear infections or, rarely, more serious things like meningitis. But in older adults, pneumococcus is a leading cause of pneumonia, resulting in an estimated 900,000 cases every year in the United States alone.
While more than 90 percent of U.S. children under age 3 are fully vaccinated against pneumococcus, the rate is much lower for adults over 65.
There are two types of pneumococcal vaccines, and depending on your age or health status, you will likely need both of them. The recommendations for these vaccines can be a little complicated, so it’s especially important for you to talk to your doctor about which you might need and when.
Herpes Zoster aka Shingles Vaccine
If you’re over the age of 60, you should also talk to your doctor about getting the shingles shot. This is true even if you’ve already had shingles at least once.
You can’t actually give shingles to your grandchildren, but you can give them chickenpox. How? The two diseases are caused by the same virus. When you are infected with chickenpox—which almost everyone born before 1980 has been—the virus stays dormant in your body and can reactivate later in life to cause shingles. And when you have shingles, you can spread the virus to someone who hasn’t had chickenpox or who hasn’t been vaccinated against it yet.
While both diseases have rashes, the shingles rash is often much more painful and tends to be isolated to one side of your body or along your nerves. Sometimes the pain from shingles can last for weeks, months, or even years after the rash goes away.
Chickenpox in small children tends to be milder than chickenpox in adults or pregnant women, but it can still be very dangerous. Before the vaccine became available, chickenpox caused more than 100 deaths each year on average in the United States.
Kids under 1 year of age and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to severe complications from the chickenpox, yet they shouldn’t get the vaccine due to potential risks. Instead, they have to rely on everyone around them to help keep them safe—including you.
MMR—Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine
If you were born in 1957 or later and haven’t been vaccinated against the measles recently, you might want to get a booster dose.
Measles used to be as common in the United States as white bread. Almost everyone got it at some point. That is, until the measles vaccine became widely available. Through mass vaccination campaigns, the number of measles cases reported in the country has gone down by 99 percent.
While the Americas have seen a lot of success in fighting back measles, it is still commonplace in much of the world—including Western Europe—and remains a leading cause of death in small children worldwide, killing more than an estimated 100,000 people every year.
In some U.S. communities, a small but increasing number of families are choosing to delay or forgo vaccines, and as a result, measles is making a comeback across the country. Babies in the United States don’t receive their first measles vaccine until 12 months old, yet they are particularly vulnerable to getting sick.
Even if you don’t think you are at risk for passing along the measles—or mumps or rubella for that matter—it’s still a good idea to make sure you are up-to-date on this vaccine, just in case.
A Word From Tips For Healthy Living
Most, if not all, of these vaccines are available at your local pharmacy. Even so, you should still check in with your primary care provider before getting vaccinated. Vaccination is safe for the overwhelming majority of adults, but it’s a good idea to verify that you don’t have an allergy or medical condition that would increase your risk of side effects or harm after receiving certain vaccines or specific brands.
Your provider can also let you know if there are any other vaccines that you should get above and beyond what is listed above. If you have diabetes, for example, your provider might recommend you get vaccinated against hepatitis B as well. Similarly, if you know you will be frequently babysitting, you might need the hepatitis A vaccine. Your primary care provider can help you figure out what you should get and on what schedule.