What vaccinations do I need as an older adult?

Vaccinations are not just for children. Older adults also need vaccinations. Protection provided by some childhood vaccines can wear off over time, and as you get older your immune system tends to weaken, putting you at higher risk of certain diseases.

In NZ the following vaccines are free to people aged 65 years
  • Flu vaccine 
  • Shingles vaccine
  • Tetanus vaccine

Flu vaccine 

Immunisation against the flu is the best way to protect our communities from infection and serious illness. It is advisable that anyone over the age of 6 months has the flu vaccine. In Aotearoa New Zealand the flu vaccine is free for anyone 65 years and over, and for Māori communities and Pacific peoples from the age of 55. This is because these groups are at higher risk of getting the flu and of developing complications – which include having to go to hospital. Read more about the flu vaccine.

For the best protection, you need the flu vaccine every year. The protection from the vaccination you had the year before becomes less effective over time. Also, flu viruses are constantly changing and the composition of flu vaccines is reviewed annually. The vaccines are updated to protect against the viruses that research indicates will be most common during the winter flu season.  

Why should older people get the flu vaccine?

Immunisation against flu provides older people with some protection against getting the disease, and if you do get flu, can make the symptoms less severe. By being immunised against flu each year, your risk of being admitted to hospital or dying from severe flu complications will be lower than older people who were not immunised. 

Older people who get the vaccine every year can get more benefit from their immunisation than adults who have a flu immunisation this year but only had them occasionally in the last few years.

When should I get the flu vaccine?

It is possible to come into contact with flu viruses all year round, but the chance of the flu virus circulating in the community is highest during winter. For most people, the best time to be vaccinated against the flu is just before the start of the winter season. In Aotearoa New Zealand, this is between April and June. It takes around 2 weeks after vaccination for the vaccine to be fully effective. You may still get the flu in this time if you come into contact with the virus, so get vaccinated in time for winter.  

Read more about the flu and the flu vaccine.

Shingles vaccine

Shingles is a painful, itchy skin rash. It usually appears as blisters around one side of your chest, but it can also be on your trunk, back, legs or face. It is most common in people over 70 years of age, but can happen in younger people. It is caused by the same virus (varicella zoster) that causes chickenpox. 

In Aotearoa New Zealand, one dose of Zostavax is recommended, and is available free for people aged 65, but is no longer free for people in the 66+ age group. Read more about shingles and shingles vaccine. 

Tetanus vaccine

Tetanus is a serious disease caused by bacteria that is usually found in soil and manure. It affects your nervous system and causes severe muscle spasms, mainly of your jaw and neck muscles. Tetanus can affect breathing and can be life threatening.

Anyone who has not had 3 tetanus-containing vaccines is at risk of getting tetanus. People over 50 years of age (particularly women) are most likely to suffer from tetanus. This is because the National Childhood Immunisation Programme with tetanus vaccine only started in 1960. Before 1960, tetanus vaccination was only routinely given to armed forces personnel.

The effect of the vaccine wears off over time so having tetanus vaccines as a child will not provide life-long cover. You need booster doses as an adult. Booster doses may also be needed after dirty cuts, grazes and wounds if it has been more than 5 years since the last booster. 

Booster doses are free for adults at 65 years of age (Boostrix®). Adults who have not previously received 4 doses of tetanus-containing vaccine can get Boostrix at 45 years of age. The vaccine itself is free but you may need to pay for it to be given. Ask your doctor or nurse for more information. Read more about tetanus and tetanus vaccine.

Pneumococcal vaccine

Pneumococcal disease is caused by a bug (bacteria) called S. pneumoniae. This causes serious illnesses such as pneumonia (lung infection), meningitis and septicaemia (infection of the blood). Pneumonia can cause hospitalisation and even death, especially in people 65 years or older.

Getting the pneumococcal vaccine is one of the ways to protect against pneumococcal disease. The vaccine may not always prevent pneumonia but it can lessen the illness and the need to go to hospital. Pneumococcal vaccine is not free for all older adults in New Zealand – you may need to pay for it. People aged over 65 years only need one dose. Read more about pneumococcal disease and pneumococcal vaccine.

Learn more

Older people Fight Flu, NZ
Influenza vaccine
Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
Pneumococcal disease Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ
Zostavax vaccine Immunisation Advisory Centre, NZ

References

  1. Pneumococcal vaccine for adults – pneumovax23 BPAC, NZ, 2011
  2. The diagnosis and management of herpes zoster and its complications BPAC, NZ, 2014
  3. Zoster (herpes zoster/‌shingles) Immunisation Handbook, NZ, 2020
  4. Influenza Immunisation Handbook, NZ, 2020
  5. Pneumococcal disease Immunisation Handbook, NZ, 2020
  6. Tetanus Immunisation Handbook, NZ, 2020

Reviewed by

Angela is a pharmacist in the Quality Use of Medicines Team at Waitematā District Health Board. She has experience in hospital pharmacy in New Zealand and in the UK, and was previously a medical writer for Elsevier in The Netherlands. Angela is interested in promoting the safe use of medicines, particularly high-risk medicines.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Maya Patel, MPharm PGDipClinPharm, Auckland Last reviewed: 10 Jun 2022