By William Schaffner, MD
As I like to tell my patients, the best approach to everyday health is a proactive one, and that means staying up-to-date on recommended vaccinations in addition to annual checkups.
Many adults don't visit a doctor unless they feel ill, nor do they think about vaccination as part of their routine, preventive healthcare. This leaves them needlessly vulnerable to diseases that can cause severe health complications or even death.
Vaccines are a safe, effective way to help prevent a number of diseases at any age-from 6 months to 60 years, and beyond. In fact, there are several vaccines recommended specifically for adults because of their risk for certain infections.
It's important for all adults to check with a healthcare professional about which vaccines are recommended for them, as we all need some vaccinations as we age. For example, the chance of having complications from the flu, or getting shingles or pneumococcal disease (see below for more information) increases with age. In other cases, a weakened immune system or the presence of underlying illnesses like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes can make us more susceptible to diseases.
Many adult vaccines are readily available at primary care medical offices and in pharmacies, and the cost of vaccination is usually covered by Medicare and most private insurers. So, there are no excuses for not staying up-to-date!
Vaccines and the immune system
If you have a weakened immune system due to cancer or related treatment, there are vaccines you should receive - and some that you should not receive.
Vaccines come in two forms: inactivated or live. Inactivated vaccines only contain killed viruses or bacteria and can be used for those with compromised immune systems. Live vaccines, such as the flu nasal spray (but not the shot, which has inactivated virus) or shingles, contain weakened but live components. While this does not pose a risk for people with a healthy immune system, live vaccines are not recommended for people whose immune system is weakened by certain cancers, cancer treatment, or other factors.
Cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, and Hodgkin disease interfere directly with the immune system. In most cases, however, it's not the cancer itself, but the cancer treatment, that changes the immune system. Some cancer treatments, such as radiation, certain chemotherapies, and transplantations, prevent your immune system from responding the way it should to infections. If you aren't sure whether your immune system is being affected, talk to your doctor or other healthcare professional before you or anyone you spend a lot of time with gets any vaccines. More...