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An Important Vaccine for Seniors

National Immunization Awareness Month is a great time to ask your PCP about this “3-in-1”vaccine

Ruth Kandel, MD's picture
An Important Vaccine for Seniors
An Important Vaccine for Seniors

Generally speaking, seniors want to do all they can to stay healthy. Sometimes my patients tell me there’s just too much information available, and they are not sure what advice is important and should be followed. A question I hear over and over again is: What vaccines do I really need?

While every person is different and needs to consult with his or her primary care clinician, I find myself telling more and more of my patients about Tdap. This vaccine is one way to protect yourself from serious and sometimes life threatening diseases.

Tdap is a "3-in-1" vaccine that protects against diphtheria, tetanus (lockjaw), and pertussis (whooping cough). It’s an important vaccine for all adults, especially those 65 years or older. 

  • Tetanus causes painful muscle tightening and stiffness, usually all over the body. It can lead to tightening of muscles in the head and neck so that you can’t open your mouth, swallow, or sometimes breathe.
  • Diphtheria can cause a thick coating to form in the back of the throat. It can lead to breathing problems, paralysis, heart failure and death.
  • Pertussis may cause severe coughing spells that can result in difficulty breathing and disturbed sleep. Complications include pneumonia as well as urinary incontinence and rib fractures. In adults a prolonged cough may be the main symptom. Adults older than 65 infected with pertussis are more likely to be hospitalized than younger adults.

Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis are caused by bacteria. Diphtheria and pertussis are spread from person to person through coughing or sneezing. Tetanus usually enters the body through cuts or wounds.

Before vaccines, the United States saw as many as 200,000 cases a year of diphtheria and pertussis, and hundreds of cases of tetanus. Since vaccination began, tetanus and diphtheria have dropped by about 99% and pertussis by about 80%.

After getting either vaccine, the body learns to attack the bacteria if it is exposed to them. As a result of the antibodies that the body has now developed against tetanus, diphtheria, or pertussis bacteria, it is unlikely that any of these diseases will develop.

Some people should not get this vaccine. The best advice I can give is: Talk to your clinician who can give you more information and tell you if Tdap is safe for you. 

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Geriatrician, Hebrew SeniorLife, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Ruth Kandel obtained her bachelor's degree from State University of New York, Buffalo and her medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She completed a residency in internal medicine at Boston City Hospital and a geriatrics fellowship at Bedford Veteran's Administration Hospital/Boston University Medical Center. She provides inpatient primary care and is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Her academic interests include Alzheimer's disease, memory disorders, and...

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