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Vaccines are safe and effective in preventing many diseases, from COVID-19 and the flu to measles and mumps. Some diseases—like polio and smallpox—have been virtually wiped out in our country, thanks to how well vaccines work.

But vaccines can only fight these diseases if everyone does their part and gets their shots. Otherwise, the diseases will keep spreading. Measles, a dangerous disease in children, was eliminated from the U.S. after widespread vaccination. Now it is spreading again in some places where not enough families have vaccinated their children.

Fighting diseases with vaccines starts in childhood, with the routine shots you get as a baby, child, and teenager. But many people forget that routine vaccines continue into adulthood. Adults need vaccines for a variety of reasons and at different stages in life.

Some vaccines are needed just once in your lifetime, and others you need every year. Then there are vaccines you need only in certain cases, like if you’re pregnant or traveling. Here’s the background on the main vaccines recommended for adults. (More may be needed if you missed any in childhood.)

Vaccines recommended for all adults

Everyone should get a flu vaccine each year, which can be given as a shot or a nasal spray. (Pregnant women get the shot, not the nasal spray.) The vaccine takes about 2 weeks to be effective after you get it, so it’s best to get the vaccine as early in the flu season as possible.

COVID-19 vaccines are recommended for everyone 5 and older. There are multiple vaccine options, and all are safe and highly effective. Learn about COVID-19 vaccines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Boosters and catch-up vaccines

Tdap protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (also called whooping cough). You should get a Tdap vaccine as a baby, but you also need a Tdap or Td (tetanus, diphtheria) booster shot every 10 years throughout your life.

Doctors strongly recommend the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine to prevent genital warts and cancer, including cervical cancer. The best time to get the HPV vaccine is age 11 or 12. But the vaccine is approved for everyone through age 45.

If you are 26 or younger, you should get the HPV vaccine. If you are 27 to 45, talk with your doctor about whether you need it. If you have new or multiple sex partners, you could be exposed to the virus. I urge you to talk with your doctor about the vaccine.

Protection before and during pregnancy

Before trying to get pregnant, make sure you’re up to date on all your vaccines. If you never got the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine or the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, you should get both at least 28 days before pregnancy.

During pregnancy and while trying to get pregnant, the flu, Tdap, and COVID-19 vaccines are all recommended. These vaccines are safe for you and your fetus and protect you from serious illness.

[Coronavirus (COVID-19), Pregnancy, and Breastfeeding: A Message for Patients]

Flu shot facts: Pregnant women are at increased risk of getting very sick from the flu. When you get a flu shot during pregnancy, the protective antibodies made in your body are transferred to your fetus. These antibodies will protect your newborn against the flu until your baby can get the vaccine at 6 months.

[Pregnant? Top 3 Reasons Why You Need the Flu Vaccine]

Tdap facts: Tdap is known as the whooping cough vaccine. Whooping cough can be life-threatening for babies. Like the flu shot, the Tdap vaccine creates antibodies that are passed on to your fetus. After you give birth, the antibodies protect your newborn until your baby’s first whooping cough vaccine at 2 months.

Timing: The best time to get the Tdap vaccine is between 27 and 36 weeks of each pregnancy, as early during that time as possible. Get the flu vaccine as soon as it is available. You’ll get the flu shot (not the nasal spray), which does not contain the live virus.

If you are traveling out of the country

Depending on your destination, you may need vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis, or other diseases. Hepatitis A and B can cause long-term liver disease. Hepatitis A is spread through contaminated food, water, or close contact with an infected person. Hepatitis B is spread through blood or bodily fluids, including sexual contact. Meningitis is an inflammation of tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Check the CDC website to see what vaccines you need based on where you are headed. Then make an appointment to get any needed vaccines at least 4 to 6 weeks before your trip.

Vaccines needed later in life

Your body’s immune system protects you from disease, and the immune system tends to weaken over time. Older adults may need vaccines to protect them from the following:

  • Shingles—Nearly 1 in 3 people will develop shingles in their lifetime. Shingles is a virus that causes a painful rash, and your risk of getting shingles increases with age. The shingles vaccine is recommended for healthy adults 50 and older.
  • Pneumococcal diseases—These diseases include meningitis, bloodstream infections, and pneumonia. Different vaccines that prevent these diseases are recommended for everyone 65 and older, and for younger adults with certain health conditions.

Other situations

You may have different recommendations for vaccines if you

  • have a health condition, including allergies or a chronic condition
  • are starting college
  • work in health care
  • have moved to the United States from another country

Learn more from the CDC or take the CDC’s adult vaccine assessment tool, which asks you questions and recommends vaccines based on your answers.

Regardless of your age and health history, talk with your doctor about which vaccines are recommended for you. They can make sure you get the vaccines that are right for your unique situation.

Vaccines are safe and effective

While no vaccine is 100 percent effective, it’s clear that vaccines work. Just one example: The tetanus vaccine has decreased tetanus cases by more than 95 percent since 1947. (Tetanus is an infection that can be deadly, if not prevented with a vaccine.) We have similar numbers for the many other diseases that we vaccinate for.

As for vaccine safety, all vaccines go through many layers of testing and review before they are recommended for use. Any side effects typically are seen within about 6 weeks of getting the vaccine. Side effects usually are mild and go away in a few days.

There have been no credible studies linking vaccines to long-term problems, such as autism. And if you’ve heard there is mercury in some vaccines, there’s no need to worry—the type of mercury used is called ethylmercury, and it’s actually a nonpoisonous salt. It’s used to prevent bacteria growth in vaccines. Read more safety questions and answers from the CDC.

Remember to talk with your doctor about the vaccines you need, especially if you have any questions or concerns. We’ll listen to your questions and give you information you can trust—and help you sort vaccine facts from fiction.

Published: December 2021

Last reviewed: December 2021

Copyright 2022 by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. All rights reserved. Read copyright and permissions information.

This information is designed as an educational aid for the public. It offers current information and opinions related to women's health. It is not intended as a statement of the standard of care. It does not explain all of the proper treatments or methods of care. It is not a substitute for the advice of a physician. Read ACOG’s complete disclaimer.

About the Author
Carrie Ann Terrell, MD
Dr. Carrie Ann Terrell

Dr. Terrell is an obstetrician–gynecologist who serves as associate professor and division director of Obstetrics, Gynecology, Midwifery, and Family Planning at the University of Minnesota. She also serves as the medical director of the Women’s Health Specialists Clinic at the University of Minnesota. She is a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).