7 Essential Adult Vaccines You Need to Know About

Vaccines save lives—find out if you’re behind on your schedule.

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With the spotlight on childhood vaccines, it’s a common misconception that grownups are fully protected. 

But there are actually seven vaccines that most people need, at specific times throughout adulthood. Find out what they are from Richard Levine, MD, the Medical Director of Lourdes Medical Associates and a family doctor at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He'll discuss when you need them, and why they’re so important.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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Flu vaccine

When to get it: Once a year, between October and January—but it’s okay to get it later if you miss that window. 

Why it matters: “Even if you’re young and healthy, the flu can knock you down for around three to five days,” says Dr. Levine. “It feels terrible, and it can take important time away from work, school and caring for your family. And you really don’t want to spread it to other people, especially the elderly or little children.”

The flu is a serious illness; thousands of people die from it each year. Even if you assume you’d bounce back from it pretty quickly, protecting yourself protects your community. This one simple act could save the lives of people you love.

Expert tip: Don’t believe the hype—you cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. There's no live virus in the shot, which would be necessary for you to actually catch it.

“People do sometimes feel sick shortly afterwards, but it’s not the flu,” Levine explains. "It can rev up your immune system a little, so that you feel under the weather. But it's an immune response, not an infection, which usually lasts no more than a day."

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Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine

When to get it:

  • You should have gotten your first Tdap around age 11 or 12. If you didn’t, tell your healthcare provider (HCP) so you can receive it right away. 
  • Get a tetanus and diphtheria (Td) booster every 10 years after your initial Tdap.
  • Having a baby? Mom should get vaccinated while pregnant, usually during the third trimester. Dad and any close adult relatives, including grandparents, should make sure they’re up to date too—get the Tdap two weeks before seeing the baby if you haven’t had it before. “Babies don’t get immunized against pertussis until six months of age, so this offers protection,” Levine says.
  • Cut yourself on metal? If it's been between 5 and 10 years, get a tetanus booster. If it's been less than that, you don't need one.

Why it matters: Tetanus and diphtheria are rare in the US today thanks to vaccination. That means most of us have never seen their alarming effects. But they cause severe symptoms and can lead to death.

“Tetanus paralyzes the jaw and neck muscles, so that you can’t swallow or breathe,” says Levine. “It's not very common, but it's very deadly, so vaccination is key.” Diphtheria makes it difficult to breathe and swallow as well, and can lead to heart failure, paralysis and death.

“With pertussis, you’re going to have a terrible cough that can last for weeks, but you’ll most likely recover,” he says. “However, it could be catastrophic if you spread it to babies or the elderly, who might not be fully immunized—it still kills people.”

Expert tip: Medicare typically won’t cover the Td booster if you get it in the doctor’s office. Ask your doctor to write a prescription for it instead. Your pharmacy can then fill and administer it, and Medicare’s more likely to cover it.

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Chickenpox vaccine

When to get it: You should have gotten the chickenpox vaccine as a child. If you didn’t—and you’ve never had the chickenpox—you should receive two doses, at least 28 days apart.

Why it matters: You might associate the chickenpox with itchy red bumps, soothing baths and getting to stay home from school. But this virus can cause more damage than you might think, including:

  • Fevers, tiredness and headaches
  • Itching wherever the rash appears
  • Possible infections or lifelong scars
  • Serious complications like brain damage, pneumonia and death (rare)

Expert tip: “The older you are when you get chickenpox, the worse it’s likely to be, so if you’re not immune as an adult, get vaccinated,” warns Levine.

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Shingles vaccine

When to get it: Two shots at age 50. A more effective vaccine, called Shingrix, was approved in 2017. People should get it even if they’ve had shingles before or received the previous version of the vaccine.

Why it matters: Shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus, called varicella zoster. If you were exposed to it as a child, it can reactivate years later in the form of shingles.

Shingles causes an extremely painful rash that typically appears in a band-like formation on one side of your body. It’s associated with fevers, body aches and chills. It can also lead to complications like post-herpetic neuralgia, or nerve pain that lingers in the area long after the rash has cleared.

Expert tip: Get vaccinated whether you’ve had chickenpox or not. About 99 percent of Americans over age 40 test positive for varicella zoster, even if they don’t remember ever having had chickenpox.

If you’ve already had shingles, you should get vaccinated, too. Doing so lowers your risk of experiencing another outbreak.

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Pneumonia vaccine

When to get it: After age 65.

If you’re a smoker, get the Pneumovax23 vaccine between ages 19 and 64.

You might be eligible for the vaccine if you’re at high risk for pneumonia due to a chronic illness like asthma, diabetes, HIV or heart disease. If you have a weak immune system or a chronic illness, ask your HCP about getting vaccinated before 65.

Why it matters: Pneumonia is a serious lung infection, claiming the lives of around 18,000 older adults each year. It causes fevers, body aches, headaches and makes it difficult to breathe. It can lead to dangerous complications like bloodstream infections or meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord.

Expert tip: Some people might need a booster after age 65 if they’re especially prone to infection. “The current guideline suggests you get Prevnar 13 when you hit 65. Usually that’s once in a lifetime, but there are certain conditions like cancer or being on dialysis, which might call for another shot,” says Levine. "If you want Medicare to pay for it, get the Pneumovax 23 vaccine one year after receiving Prevnar 13."

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Measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR)

When to get it: At least once after age 18 if you were born later than 1956 (unless you know you’ve had all three of the diseases it covers).

Why it matters: Measles, mumps and rubella are all serious illnesses that spread easily through the air. Measles can lead to seizures and brain damage. Complications of mumps include deafness and meningitis. Rubella, or German measles, can cause birth defects or miscarriage, so it’s especially important for women of childbearing age to make sure they’re covered.

Expert tip: The MMR vaccine does not cause autism and it doesn’t contain mercury. Read more about vaccine myths.

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Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine

When to get it: The ideal time to receive the HPV vaccine is between ages 9 and 12. The younger you complete this three-dose vaccine series, the more effective it’s likely to be. If you miss that window, it’s approved for women up to age 26 and men up to age 21. Men who have sex with men can also have it up until age 26.

Why it matters: HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US. It causes genital warts, which the vaccine protects against.

“This is also the first vaccine that actually helps prevent cancer, which is amazing,” says Levine. “HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, rectum and the oropharynx, an area that includes the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils.”

Expert tip: Get vaccinated even if you already have HPV. Why? There are at least 150 different strains of the virus. The vaccine protects against strains you don’t have.

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Some people need extra protection

There are exceptions to every recommendation—some people shouldn’t get certain vaccines due to allergies or their medical history. Always check with your primary doctor before receiving a new shot.

On the other hand, you might need additional vaccines if you’re:

  • Traveling to another country
  • Pregnant
  • Working in healthcare or childcare

Take the this super simple quiz from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine which vaccines you should receive based on your gender, profession and age. 

Read more from Dr. Levine.

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