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The vaccinations you may need as an adult

Vaccinations aren’t just for kids. Sometimes adults need to boost their immunity too. Here’s the grown-up scoop for preventative vaccination care

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The best protection

It’s common practice for children to roll up their sleeves, but did you know it’s recommended that adults go under the needle as well? Dr. Monika Naus, Medical Director of Immunization Programs and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Service at B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, says that staying on top of your immunizations is key to a healthy adulthood. “Immunizations are the best protection against a variety of infectious diseases,” she says. Not only do some childhood immunizations lose effectiveness as we age, but our lifestyle choices, age, jobs, foreign travel, sexual partners – even chronic medical conditions – can place us at a higher risk for certain diseases. But when and how should you protect yourself?

The seventh edition of the Canadian Immunization Guide, a publication created by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) and the Public Health Agency of Canada contains recommendations for adult immunizations. Check with your doctor to see if the following vaccines are offered free, or for a fee by your province or territory’s health care system.

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woman with cold or flu

Suggested yearly immunization:


According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, between 2,000-8,000 Canadians die from the flu each year. Many of these deaths could have been prevented with a flu shot. Dr. Naus says adults should get the flu vaccine every autumn. “The flu virus changes every year,” she says. “The vaccine that’s formulated each year is designed to protect against the strains that are forecast to be circulating that season.”

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Childhood vaccinations requiring adult boosters:

Tetanus and diphtheria (Td)

Canadians receive a series of tetanus and diphtheria inoculations as infants, but that immunity requires strengthening during adulthood. Tetanus and diphtheria boosters (Td) are given together in one injection every 10 years. Tetanus is a nerve and muscle disease that could be acquired through a contaminated skin wound, such as stepping on a rusty nail. “Tetanus is in the environment, so everybody has a potential risk,”says Dr. Naus. Diphtheria is almost non-existent in Canada today, however, it’s important for adults to maintain immunity. In the ’90s, a diphtheria outbreak in the former Soviet Union resulted in 4,000 deaths.

Pertussis (Tdap)

Canadians receive multiple doses of the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine through infancy and childhood. While this highly contagious respiratory disease is most dangerous for babies, it can also affect adults with lapsed immunity. The NACI recommends that adult Canadians receive a single, lifelong booster dose of the pertussis vaccine (Tdap) when they receive a tetanus/diphtheria booster.

Want an easy way to remember this 10-year mark?  Dr. Naus suggests checking in with your doctor during each mid-decade birthday year – when you turn 25, 35, 45, 55, etc.

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boy vaccine

Childhood vaccinations you might have missed:

Measles, mumps and rubella (MMR)

Most Canadians received this combined vaccine as kids. If you’re not sure, a simple blood test ordered by your doctor can confirm your immunity. Adults who missed out on the childhood MMR shot can receive two vaccine doses to catch up. Dr. Naus suggests that women of childbearing age and overseas travellers also check their immunity. Rubella can trigger birth defects during pregnancy, and measles recently resurfaced in Europe.

Varicella (chicken pox)

Dr. Naus says that adults who have never had chicken pox should undergo a blood test to see if they’re susceptible. If you are, two doses of the varicella vaccine are required. “Varicella is a live vaccine, so adults with compromised immune systems shouldn’t receive it,” says Dr. Naus. Pregnant women should also avoid this immunization until after giving birth.

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stethoscope needle

Vaccinations for special age groups and situations:


HPV, the human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause genital warts and cancer in both sexes. Two vaccines are currently available in Canada: the quadrivalent vaccine which protects against four HPV strains and is approved for females age nine to 45, and males nine to 26. The other HPV vaccine is bivalent, and guards against two HPV strains, but is approved for females 10 to 26 only. “Get vaccinated before you become sexually active because once you’re infected these vaccines won’t clear HPV,” says Dr. Naus.

Pneumococcal (Pneumonia)

Adults over 65 should receive a one-time dose of the pneumococcal vaccine. In addition, Dr. Naus says that adults under 65 who have high-risk medical conditions such as chronic heart, lung, kidney or liver disease, diabetes or cancer should also get this vaccination.

Travel immunizations

Leaving on a jet plane? Dr. Naus advises visiting a travel clinic first – at least eight weeks before departure. Many vaccinations require more than one dose, plus some preventative measures such as anti-malaria pills require a few weeks to work. Ask your travel clinic if you require vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, measles, tuberculosis, Japanese encephalitis, meningococcal disease and rabies. Your destination, purpose of travel and age will be key in determining what immunizations you need.

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