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Retro-Vactive: Vaccine Protection Isn’t Just for Youth; Seniors Take Note

Sep 09, 2015 10:32AM ● By Cate Reynolds
Most seniors know a flu shot is the best defense against influenza, preventing flu-related hospitalizations and even death.

But the flu vaccine isn’t the only shot you should be getting this year if you are 65 and older. Vaccines to prevent shingles and pneumococcal disease, the infection that can lead to pneumonia, can also be lifesavers.


Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is caused by the varicella zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in his or her body. It hides out in nerve cells and can reactivate years later, causing shingles.

Symptoms include a painful rash on one side of the face or body. The rash forms blisters, which then scab over within 10 days. The blisters usually clear within two to four weeks, but for many people over 60, the pain can be persistent. Other symptoms include chills, fever, headache and upset stomach.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, nearly one out of three people will get shingles in their lifetime. And the risk of getting it increases as a person ages.

Shingles outbreaks that begin in the eye or on the face can lead to vision and hearing problems. The pain associated with the outbreaks can also disrupt seniors’ daily activities.

The shingles vaccine, known as Zostavax, reduces the risk of developing the illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults age 60 and older receive one dose of the vaccine.

Still, there are some who cannot receive the vaccine, including people with a weakened immune system or people who have experienced a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin or any other part of the shingles vaccine. Check with your doctor to determine if you are eligible for the shot.


Pneumonia is inflammation of the lungs. Symptoms include fever, chest pain, cough, chills, muscle stiffness and shortness of breath. The illness makes seniors vulnerable to other health problems, such as a weakened immune system, and can eventually lead to death.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are more than 90 types of pneumococcal bacteria. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) protects against 13 types, while the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) protects against 23 types. Both of these vaccines protect against meningitis, an infection that affects the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, and bacteremia, a blood infection. In addition, PCV13 protects against pneumonia.

Doctors recommend seniors age 65 and older receive one dose of PCV13 if they have not yet had the vaccine. Seniors should then receive a dose of PPSV23 six to 12 months later. For those who have already had one or more doses of PPSV23, the dose of PCV13 should be administered at least one year after the most recent PPSV23 dose.

Seniors with long-term illnesses may not respond well to these shots, so check with your doctor about potential complications.

To find out more about these vaccines or discover which ones you need, call your primary care physician or visit the CDC’s adult immunization vaccine finder at

Provided by University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center.