Seniors: Shots for Safety (cont.)

Diphtheria usually affects the tonsils, throat, nose, or skin. Like tetanus, it is caused by the toxin, or poison, of a bacterium, but it can spread from an infected person to the nose or throat of others. It can lead to breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis, and sometimes death. Diphtheria may be mistaken for a severe sore throat. Other symptoms include a low-grade fever and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck. A second form of diphtheria causes sores on the skin that may be painful, red, and swollen.

Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against tetanus and diphtheria. Most people receive their first vaccine as children in the form of a combined diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine or DTP. For adults, a combination shot, called a Td booster, protects against both tetanus and diphtheria. You need a Td shot every 10 years through-out life to protect yourself against these rare, but dangerous, illnesses. During everyday activities (such as gardening), the tetanus bacteria can enter a break in the skin and cause infection. It's particularly important to have a booster shot if you have a severe cut or puncture wound and haven't had a booster in the past 5 to 10 years.

The Td vaccine is safe and effective. Most people have no problems with it. When side effects do occur, they usually are minor and include soreness, redness, or swelling on the arm where the shot was given.


Chickenpox - also known as varicella - is a very contagious disease that is caused by a virus. It is spread easily through the air by infected people when they sneeze or cough. The disease also spreads through contact with an infected person's chickenpox sores. People who have never had chickenpox can get infected just by being in the room with someone who has the disease.

While chickenpox is a mild disease for children, adults usually get much sicker. Early symptoms include aching, tiredness, fever, and sore throat. Then, an itchy, blister-like rash appears.

People who have had chickenpox are protected from getting it again. A vaccine is available to protect people who have not had chickenpox. Two doses of the vaccine are recommended for people 13 years of age and older. Most people who get chickenpox vaccine don't have problems with it. The most common side effects are mild and include pain and swelling on the arm where the shot was given. Fever or a mild rash may develop.

Some people who have had chickenpox may develop shingles later in life. Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the same virus that produces chickenpox.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases currently is testing a shingles vaccine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The vaccine they are testing is similar to the one used to immunize against chickenpox. After the shot, some people have had some discomfort around the area of the injection. In addition, a few people have had a low-grade fever. For more information about this study, call 1-800-411-1222.

Measles, Mumps, and Rubella

Measles, mumps, and rubella were once very common diseases in the United States, but they have become rare because of the use of vaccines to prevent them. As with many other diseases, measles, mumps, and rubella generally are more severe in adults than in children. Most adults are immune to all three infections because they had them (or a vaccine) as children.

Everyone born in or after 1957 should have received at least one dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine sometime after their first birthday. Some adults - such as health care workers and people who travel out of the U.S. - may need a second dose. People born before 1957 may be vaccinated if they believe they've never had one of these diseases. There's no harm in receiving the vaccine if you already are immune to the infection.


If you are planning to travel abroad, check with your doctor or local health department about the shots that you need. Sometimes a series of shots is needed, so it's best to get them well in advance of your trip. For information about specific vaccines required by different countries, general health measures for travelers, and reported outbreaks, call the CDC information line for international travelers at 1-877-394-8747. The Web site address is

Keeping a Shot Record

It's helpful to keep a personal immunization record with the types and dates of shots you've received, as well as any side effects or problems that you had. The medical record in your doctor's office also should be kept up to date.

Widespread use of vaccines can reduce the risk of developing a number of contagious diseases that seriously affect older people. You can protect yourself against these illnesses by including vaccinations as part of your regular health care.

SOURCE: Source: National Institute of Aging, National Institutes of Health

Last Editorial Review: 3/23/2006