5 Vaccines for Adults: Why (and When) You Need Them

How to protect yourself against serious, sometimes deadly, diseases

Vaccines successfully protect children from diseases that are fatal early in life.

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But vaccines aren’t just for kids.

Adults need protection against diseases that can have serious — and even deadly — consequences later in life. Family medicine physician Michael Rabovsky, MD, outlines the vaccines adults should plan to get:

1. Flu shots

Good evidence reveals the flu vaccine’s power against sickness and death from influenza and its complications.

Who needs a flu shot: Everyone 6 months of age and older needs the flu vaccine. It’s especially important for those with chronic illnesses (like asthma, COPD, diabetes and heart disease) and those aged 65 and older. (Their risk for serious consequences and hospitalization is higher.)

When to get yours: Be sure to get your flu shot every year (preferably before flu season begins in late fall). For those 65 and older, the high-dose vaccine offers extra protection.

Tip: “Herd immunity works,” says Dr. Rabovsky. “In areas where more people are immunized, we see fewer flu deaths among the elderly, the immunocompromised and the young.”

2. Pneumococcal vaccine

The pneumococcal vaccine protects the vulnerable against pneumonia, meningitis and other infections that can lead to hospitalization and death.

Who needs the pneumococcal vaccine: Everyone ages 65 and older should have this vaccine. Adults who are active smokers or have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, COPD, etc., also need the pneumococcal vaccine.

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When to get yours: You’ll need two shots, the PCV13 at age 65 and the PPSV23 one year later.

Tip: “If you’re an active smoker or have a chronic medical condition, ask your doctor if you need the pneumococcal vaccine prior to age 65,” says Dr. Rabovsky.

3. Tetanus boosters

The tetanus vaccine guards against a bacteria whose toxin painfully contracts muscles throughout your body. It is often combined with other vaccines.

Who needs tetanus boosters: Adults need regular tetanus boosters (added to diphtheria vaccine, as Td). Anyone with a severe or dirty wound or burn also needs immunization. Women need the tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine with every pregnancy.

When to get yours: Td boosters are given every 10 years throughout adulthood. At least one of these boosters should be the Tdap, which also protects against pertussis.

Tip: Diphtheria can be life-threatening. While pertussis is annoying for adults, it is deadly for infants. “Every adult who will be around newborns — especially dads — should be up-to-date with their Tdap vaccine,” says Dr. Rabovsky.

4. Shingles vaccine

The shingles vaccine increases your odds for avoiding a very painful rash. If you do get shingles, the vaccine slashes its severity as well as the risk of developing ongoing nerve pain (post-herpetic neuralgia).

Who needs the shingles vaccine:  Your risk of shingles rises with age, so adults age 60 and older should get the vaccine.

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When to get yours: A new shingles vaccine, Shingrix®, was approved in 2017. This two-shot series, given two to six months apart,  provides more protection than the one-time Zostavax® vaccine.

Tip: Anyone who’s had chickenpox can develop shingles. Not sure whether you’ve had it? The CDC says 99% of those 40 and older have had chickenpox whether they recall it or not. “If you’ve never had chickenpox, the shingles vaccine protects against this disease as well,” notes Dr. Rabovsky.

5. Hepatitis vaccines 

The hepatitis A and hepatitis B viruses attack the liver. Vaccination prevents serious infection and, in hepatitis B, liver scarring and failure, cancer and death.

Who needs hepatitis vaccines:  “Healthcare workers and others exposed to body fluids, through which hepatitis spreads, need the hepatitis B vaccine,” notes Dr. Rabovsky. “Travelers may need the hepatitis A vaccine.”

When to get yours: Hepatitis B vaccine is available for all age groups. (Vaccinating children against hepatitis A and B is now routine.)

Tip: Getting one type of hepatitis won’t protect you against other types. While hepatitis A usually resolves on its own, hepatitis C is as serious as hepatitis B. However, hepatitis C lacks a vaccine.

Traveling abroad?

Will you be going overseas on a cruise, traveling with a chronic illness or with children, or providing disaster relief? Check the CDC website to discover which vaccines (hepatitis A and B, typhoid, malaria, etc.) you’ll need for that part of the globe.

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