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The importance of immunizations

Immunization is key to preventing disease among the general population. Vaccines benefit both the people who receive them, and the vulnerable, unvaccinated people around them, because the infection can no longer spread through the community if most people are immunized. In addition, immunizations reduce the number of deaths and disability from infections, such as measles, whooping cough, and chickenpox.

Although children receive the majority of the vaccinations, adults also need to be sure they are already immune to certain infections and/or stay up-to-date on certain vaccinations, including varicella, seasonal influenza, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, rubella, zoster, human papillomavirus, pneumococcal (polysaccharide), hepatitis A and B, flu, and meningococcal. Childhood illnesses, such as mumps, measles, and chickenpox can cause serious complications in adults.

About guidelines for childhood immunizations

Many childhood diseases can now be prevented by following recommended guidelines for vaccinations:

  • Meningococcal vaccine (MCV4). To protect against meningococcal disease
  • Hep B. To protect against hepatitis B
  • Inactivated poliovirus (IPV). To protect against polio
  • DTaP. To protect against diphtheria, tetanus (lockjaw), and pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Hib vaccine. To protect against Haemophilus influenzae type b (which may cause meningitis)
  • MMR. To protect against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles)
  • Pneumococcal vaccine. PCV13 (pneumococcal conjugate vaccine) to protect against pneumonia, infection in the blood, and meningitis. Another form of pneumoccocal vaccine, PPSV (pneumoncoccal polysaccharide vaccine) is used in special conditions and in adults.
  • Varicella. To protect against chickenpox
  • Rotavirus. To prevent infections caused by rotavirus (RotaTeq or Rotarix)
  • Hep A. To protect against hepatitis A
  • HPV. To protect from human papillomavirus, which is linked to cervical cancer and other cancers
  • Seasonal influenza.To protect against different flu viruses

A child's first vaccination is given at birth. Immunizations are scheduled throughout childhood, with many beginning within the first few months of life. By following a regular schedule, and making sure a child is immunized at the right time, you're ensuring the best defense against dangerous childhood diseases.

Please visit the Online Resources page for the most up-to-date guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Reactions to immunizations

As with any medication, vaccinations may cause reactions, usually in the form of a sore arm or low-grade fever. Although serious reactions are rare, they can happen, and your child's doctor or nurse may discuss these with you before giving the shots. However, the risks for contracting the diseases the immunizations provide protection from are higher than the risks for having a reaction to the vaccine.

Treating mild reactions to immunizations in children:

Aspirin and the risk of Reye's syndrome in children

Aspirin shouldn't be given to children or teenagers because of the risk for Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease. Therefore, pediatricians and other health care providers recommend that aspirin not be used to treat any fever in children.

  • Fussiness, fever, and pain. Children may need extra love and care after getting immunized. The shots that keep them from getting serious diseases can also cause discomfort for a while. Children may experience fussiness, fever, and pain at the immunization site after they have been immunized.
  • Fever. DO NOT GIVE ASPIRIN. You may want to give your child acetaminophen, a medication that helps to reduce pain and fever, as directed by your child's doctor.
    • Give your child plenty to drink.
    • Clothe your child lightly. Do not cover or wrap your child tightly.
    • Sponge your child in a few inches of lukewarm (not cold) bath water.
  • Swelling or pain. DO NOT GIVE ASPIRIN. You may want to give your child acetaminophen, a medication that helps to reduce pain and fever, as directed by your child's doctor.

    A clean, cool washcloth may be applied over the sore area as needed for comfort.

If more serious symptoms occur, call your child's doctor right away. These symptoms may include:

  • A large area of redness and swelling around the area where the injection was given. The skin area may be warm to touch and very tender. There may also be red streaks coming from the initial site of the injection.
  • A high fever
  • The child is pale or limp
  • The child has been crying incessantly for several minutes
  • The child has a strange cry that is not normal (a high-pitched cry)
  • The child's body is shaking, twitching, or jerking

About adult immunizations

Although children receive the majority of the vaccinations, adults also need to stay up-to-date on certain vaccinations, including tetanus and diphtheria. In addition, those adults who have never had chickenpox or measles during childhood (nor the vaccines against these specific diseases) should consider being vaccinated. Childhood illnesses, such as mumps, measles, and chickenpox, can cause serious complications in adults.

Adults with certain medical conditions and who are planning to travel to foreign countries may also need to be immunized. Always consult your doctor.

Who should immunize against the flu?

The flu causes complications that may develop into a more serious disease or become dangerous to some groups, such as older adults and those with chronic medical conditions. For these reasons, the CDC recommends that the following groups be immunized each year:

  • People age 50 and older (Vaccine effectiveness may be lower for older adults, but it can significantly reduce their chances of serious illness or death from influenza.)
  • Residents of nursing homes and any other chronic care facilities that house people of any age who have chronic medical conditions
  • Adults and children who have chronic disorders of the pulmonary or cardiovascular systems, including children with asthma
  • Adults and children who have the following medical conditions:
    • Chronic metabolic diseases (for example, diabetes)
    • Renal dysfunction
    • Immunosuppression
    • Hemoglobinopathies
  • Children and teenagers (between ages 6 months and age 18) receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • Women who will be in their second or third trimester of pregnancy during the influenza (fall-winter) season. (The flu vaccine may not be appropriate in all cases. Consult your doctor for more information.)

In addition, the following groups should be vaccinated:

  • Health care providers
  • Employees of nursing homes and chronic care facilities who have contact with patients or residents
  • Providers of home care to people at high risk
  • Household members (including children) of people in high-risk groups
  • People of any age who wish to decrease their chances of influenza infection, excluding people who are allergic to eggs

Always consult your doctor for more information regarding who should receive the flu vaccine.

Who should get a pneumococcal vaccine?

This vaccine helps prevent pneumonia and blood infections caused by the bacteria, pneumococcus. It is recommended that people age 65 and older receive the vaccine. Younger people with heart problems, lung disease, diabetes, cirrhosis, kidney problems, or certain patients with cancer should also receive the vaccine. The vaccine is given only once, except in people with certain medical problems. Consult your doctor for information on the pneumococcal vaccine.

Who should get tetanus and diphtheria shots?

Tetanus toxoid prevents lockjaw, an illness which causes painful muscle spasms and can be fatal. Everyone needs a tetanus shot at least once every 10 years. People who haven't had a tetanus shot in the last five years and have a dirty cut or wound will generally be given one.

Diphtheria is an infection of the throat that can damage the heart or lungs. Like the tetanus shot, all people need a diphtheria shot once every 10 years.

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