6 Essential Vaccines You Need to Get This Year
Staying up to date on these shots is one of the most important things you can do to protect your health
The big health news this year? It’s all about waiting patiently for our turn to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In the meantime, there are six other shots that can protect you from a variety of serious illnesses. They’re a super-important part of staying healthy right now.
Case in point: shingles, an illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same one that causes chickenpox. If you had chickenpox as a child—as most people who grew up before the chickenpox vaccine debuted in 1995 did—this virus is still dormant in your body. And for one in three people, it can reappear years later in the form of shingles, which has been described as a pain comparable to childbirth. Yikes.
So it’s no surprise that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the shingles vaccine, called Shingrix, for all adults older than 50. It’s more than 90% effective at preventing the disease.
“I talk to all of my older patients about the shingles vaccine,” says Sterling Ransone, M.D., a family doctor in Deltaville, Virginia, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “After all, shingles can be a debilitating condition—for some people, it causes chronic pain that can last for decades.”
Do you have an annual exam coming up? Talk to your health care provider about getting up to date on these six essential vaccines. Find out which ones are right for you.
Essential Vaccine #1: Flu
You know the symptoms—feverish chills, sniffling, sneezing, a sore throat, and aches and pains that leave you flat on your back. Most people get over it, but the flu is highly contagious and can be deadly for certain groups of people, so adding this to the top of your vaccination list is a must.
“Everybody six months and older should get vaccinated against seasonal flu, especially now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Ann Marie Pettis, RN, director of infection prevention at the University of Rochester Medicine-Highland Hospital and president-elect of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. “Often, coronavirus symptoms are almost identical to early flu symptoms, so it’s important to rule out flu whenever possible.”
Who needs it: Everyone, but especially adults ages 65 and older, or anyone with a chronic lung condition, heart disease, or diabetes. If you’re an older adult, your doctor may want you to have a high-dose vaccine.
When to get it: Because the vaccine takes a few weeks to become effective, get it as soon as it’s available in your area; the best time is usually September or October. But if you miss it in fall, don’t worry: Just make sure you get it later in the season.
Essential Vaccine #2: Tdap or Td Booster
This vaccine protects against three potentially deadly diseases:
- Tetanus, which causes painful muscle stiffness and can lead to difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Diphtheria, which may lead to heart failure or paralysis
- Pertussis, or whooping cough, which causes violent, uncontrollable coughing that can make breathing a struggle
Diphtheria and pertussis can spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing; tetanus is transmitted through breaks in the skin.
Who needs it: Everyone.
When to get it: If you’ve never had a Tdap shot, get one as soon as possible. If you’ve previously had one, get a Td booster every 10 years. And if you’ve ever had a severe cut or burn, but can’t remember the last time you received either vaccination, check in with your doctor straight away.
Essential Vaccine #3: MMR
Before the measles vaccination was introduced in the 1960s, some three to four million Americans got this contagious—and potentially deadly—disease every year. It’s so contagious that if one person catches it, up to nine out of 10 people who they come into contact with will get it too, if they are not vaccinated. Today, most kids are vaccinated against measles—and two other serious childhood diseases, mumps and rubella—with an MMR shot, given when they’re babies. This vaccine has reduced the number of cases by 99%.
You should have gotten two doses of this vaccine as a child. If you’re not sure, a lab test may determine whether you’re immune (and therefore don’t need the shot).
Who needs it: Anyone who didn’t receive the vaccination as a child. But be sure to check with your doctor, as some people vaccinated between 1963 and 1967 may need to be revaccinated, because the shots from that time period may not have been effective.
When to get it: If you’re traveling to certain countries, you might benefit from a second dose. Check with your doctor to be sure.
Essential Vaccine #4: Chickenpox and Shingles
Both of these conditions have the same culprit: the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). After having chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in the body and can flare up as shingles later in life.
Who needs it: If you had chickenpox (varicella) as a kid, you probably remember it as an itchy, miserable week of your life. If you didn’t have it, you’ll need a chickenpox vaccine now. And if you’re 50 or older, experts recommend two doses of Shingrix, which provides long-lasting protection. If you’ve had a different version of the shingles shot, your doctor may recommend that you get revaccinated.
When to get it: As soon as possible.
Essential Vaccine #5: Pneumonia
The pneumococcal vaccine protects against dangerous infections of the bloodstream and lungs, including pneumonia. Pneumococcal disease is common in kids—but it can be extremely dangerous in older adults.
Who needs it: All adults ages 65 and older, and some younger people (with certain health conditions), should get a pneumonia vaccine.
When to get it: Current guidelines suggest getting one dose of the two different pneumococcal vaccines—PCV13 (Prevnar 13) followed by PPSV23 (Pneumovax 23)—a year apart. If you’ve already been vaccinated, ask your doctor if you might benefit from a second dose.
Essential Vaccine #6: Meningitis
Meningitis happens when the protective membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord become swollen and infected. In the United States, there are two types of vaccines for meningitis: conjugate vaccines and serogroup B vaccines. They’re responsible for combatting meningococcal disease, which is transferred through throat secretions (i.e., kissing and coughing).
Who needs it: Preteens, teens, and college-age adults are the most susceptible, but folks over 50 should get this shot too if they’re routinely exposed to meningitis. Again, ask your provider what’s best for you.
When to get it: As soon as possible. If you’ve already been vaccinated, ask your doctor if you might benefit from a second dose.