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A John Muir Health Family Practitioner Gives the 411 on a Few Essential Vaccines for Grown-Ups


Anyone who has ever had chickenpox is at risk to develop shingles, says Dr. Mike Kern, John Muir Health's medical director of quality. That’s because the virus that causes chickenpox (varicella virus) can be latent in the body. Even decades later, it may reactivate, leading to a painful rash, which is shingles’ most common symptom, and a relatively high risk of complications, which may cause permanent nerve pain. “Because chickenpox is so common, one in three otherwise healthy people over the age of 60 will develop shingles in his or her lifetime,” says Kern. Following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Kern recommends that all adults 60 and over get vaccinated for shingles. “While shingles is not a life-threatening condition, it can be serious and can cause permanent nerve pain,” he says. “The vaccine—a one-time shot typically administered to the arm—reduces the incidence of shingles dramatically.”

Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

This very contagious respiratory tract infection is characterized by a high-pitched cough that makes a whooping sound. “We are seeing a higher-than-normal incidence of pertussis in California this year,” says Kern. “The pertussis vaccine remains the best way to protect adults against the infection and to keep them from spreading it to infants and children.” Following CDC guidelines, infants and children are routinely vaccinated for whooping cough. For adults, the pertussis vaccine is often given as a one-time booster, which may be combined with the vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria. The CDC also recommends a one-time pertussis vaccine for pregnant women, women who have recently given birth and anyone who has close contact with newborns.


Also known as lockjaw, tetanus causes stiffness in the neck and abdomen and difficulty swallowing; in advanced cases it leads to severe nervous system disorders. “Tetanus is a very serious infection caused by bacteria often found in the soil,” says Kern. “The infection usually occurs when patients have a penetrating wound that becomes contaminated. In reality, tetanus is pretty uncommon, but adults should still follow the CDC guidelines and get vaccinated.” As with pertussis, the tetanus vaccine is given five times over a period of six years to infants and children. For adults, the CDC recommends a tetanus booster shot every 10 years or whenever there may be cause, such as having a deep, exposed wound in an agricultural environment.