Every UK mother has a little red book where she records her baby's immunisations, protecting them from diseases which, in times gone by, caused untold distress and even death. But older people need protecting too. Since last year, some 70 to 80-year-olds have started being invited for an immunisation against shingles. Not everyone in this age group has been offered the vaccine yet - last year, everyone who turned 70 or 79 before 1st September 2013 was offered it, while this year it will be anyone who's aged 71 or 78 on 1st September will be invited - but the aim is to cover this whole age group in the next few years.
The painful, blistering rash of shingles, which affects only one half of your body, is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. Once you've recovered from chicken pox the virus doesn't disappear completely. It lies dormant in the nerve roots next to your spine. At any later stage in your life it can spring into action again, affecting just the skin supplied by the nerve root where it was hiding.
The rash of shingles usually settles within a couple of weeks, but it can cause severe lasting pain along the nerve it affected. It can also affect the skin around your eye, and this kind of shingles needs careful follow up to prevent damage to your eyesight.
The shingles vaccine should cut the risk of getting shingles by 55-60 per cent and the risk of eye complications by two thirds. When I reach that age, I'll be first in the queue!
Don't forget flu!
If you're over 65 or have long-term medical condition, you should be receiving an invitation for your annual flu vaccination in early October. Older people are at much higher risk of getting serious complications, like pneumonia, if they catch influenza. The flu virus adapts every year to improve its chances of affecting the most people, so you need to get immunised every year. From last year, all under-18s have also been offered immunisation - they spread the illness to others in the community faster than any other group, so this should protect older people, too.
Pneumococcal disease, caused by a bacterial infection called pneumococcus, can cause pneumonia, meningitis and blood poisoning. People at risk are usually offered immunisation against this infection either as a one-off to protect them for life or every five years, depending on their underlying medical condition.
Why do we immunise when?
As you get older, your immune system is less efficient at fighting off infection. Many infectious diseases cause far worse complications if you have other long-term medical conditions, like type 1 or type 2 diabetes or heart, lung, kidney or liver disease. That's why pneumococcal and flu vaccinations are recommended for all over-65s and people with long-term health conditions.
Studies show your risk of getting shingles - and, more importantly, long-term complications, rises with age. However, over the age of 80 the current vaccine doesn't seem to work as well. That's why, for now, it's being targeted just at people in their 70s.
Don't forget the carers!
All carers of elderly or disabled people are eligible for a flu vaccination on the NHS every year. It can keep you on your feet to look after your loved one, and protect them too.
If shingles strikes
See your GP straight away. She can give you a course of tablets which helps reduce the risk of long- term complications like nerve pain. But these tablets work best if they're given early (at most three days after the rash appears). Wear loose fitting clothes to avoid irritating the skin affected; keep cool; take paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain; and see your doctor again if your symptoms worsen or change.
You don't 'catch' shingles, but you can give someone else chicken pox if they come into close contact with you until the rash has scabbed over. It's important to avoid contact especially with babies, small children and pregnant women.
Off gallivanting? Get protected!
These days we live in a 'global village' with last minute deals to exotic destinations I could never have dreamed of in my youth. But holiday disaster could strike if you're not protected against infectious diseases. Log on to patient.info's travel advice to check if you need immunisations (or malaria prevention treatment) for any travel outside Western Europe, the USA, Australia or New Zealand. If you do, see your practice nurse at least eight weeks before you travel.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.