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More than just your class schedule and study habits will shift when you head to college or the workforce—for many students, handling their own health care is part of the deal. High school is a great time to start taking more responsibility for your health, when you can work with Mom or Dad to make decisions and appointments.

A major part of moving into the driver’s seat is learning your vaccination history. While you received many of your vaccinations as a kid or preteen, it’s important to start paying attention to what vaccinations you’ve gotten and which you’ll still need as a teen and young adult.

Vaccines are one of the best possible ways to protect your health and the health of those around you (no one wants to be the one responsible for spreading a nasty flu around the school). In fact, many colleges actually require you to get certain vaccines as part of your admission. (Don’t worry—if you get accepted at a college, they will let you know which vaccines are recommended and which might be required by the state.)

Student perspectives

“Vaccines [prevent us] from getting horrible diseases or illnesses. It prevents outbreaks of these illnesses and protects us from the pain they cause.”
—Olivia, freshman, Dodgeville, Wisconsin

“I believe in herd immunity, and I don’t want other people to get sick because I didn’t get vaccinated.”
—Finnegan, senior, Oregon

We want to make the immunization process as painless as possible. Here’s what you need to know about the most important vaccines to have—what they are, why they’re so important, and how to get them.

The influenza (flu) vaccine

Why you need it

Despite how commonly we hear about it, the flu isn’t something to mess around with (most of the time, when people think they have the flu, it’s actually a less serious viral infection). “Seasonal flu is a serious, highly contagious respiratory illness that affects approximately 5 to 20 percent of individuals each year,” says Dr. Lisa Ipp, associate director of adolescent medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that of those who get the flu, over 200,000 are hospitalized and tens of thousands die from flu-related complications.”

More likely than landing you in the hospital, getting the flu could really set you back in class. The average length of the illness is eight days, according to a study published in PLOS One—that’s a lot of notes you’ll have to borrow from classmates for missed school days. In college, missing classes could become even more problematic; research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that 46 percent of college students did poorly on an assignment after getting the flu. Unless you want to fall majorly behind, getting your yearly shot is super important.

Key facts about the seasonal flu vaccine.

How to get it

The CDC recommends everyone get a flu vaccine each year, so remind your parent or guardian to take you to get one (and get one for themselves)—even if you’re perfectly healthy. “Without a flu shot, your immune system can’t protect you against the flu because the virus mutates from year to year,” says Dr. Davis Smith, director of health services at Westminster School in Connecticut. Plus, getting yourself vaccinated will help protect the people you spend time with—such as your younger siblings or grandparents—who are “vulnerable to serious complications of flu” because it’s more difficult for their bodies to deal with the infection, says Dr. Smith.

When to get it

Every year, as soon as it becomes available. The vaccine is usually made available between September and January (and sometimes later).

Student perspective

“Vaccines are incredibly important because they not only protect you but protect those around you who are susceptible to diseases.”
—Leah, DeKalb, Illinois

The flu vaccine covers the three or four strains most likely to land you in bed with chills, aches, and a fever. Each year, the experts predict which strains will be the most common and come up with the flu shot formula that will protect against them. The vaccine is currently available as both an injection and a nasal spray; however, the CDC may recommend one over the other in a given season. Check the current CDC guidelines to make sure you’re getting the recommended version.

Flu guidelines (CDC)

And PS—the flu vaccine will not give you the flu (no matter how much that girl in class swears she got sick from her flu shot). The vaccine works by causing your body to develop antibodies about two weeks after you get vaccinated—so if you do get sick after getting your shot, that means you were already exposed to the virus or were exposed in that two-week window.

Flu season lasts from fall to spring, but if you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, you still can (and should!), according to the CDC. Put a reminder on your calendar to visit your family physician. You can also find the flu vaccine at most community clinics and pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens. The flu shot typically costs around $40–$70, but the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover it in full (meaning it should be free). Make sure you check with your provider before you go—some insurance companies require you to get the vaccine from your doctor (not a pharmacy) for the cost to be covered.

Vaccine finder

Girl getting a shotThe human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine

Why you need it

“The HPV vaccine is cancer prevention,” says Lizzy Appleby, a social worker and youth program manager at Angles reproductive healthcare clinic in Illinois. “While most strains of HPV will go away on their own, some strains can cause cancer, including cervical cancers, throat cancers, anal cancers, and penile cancers,” she says. HPV causes 31,500 new cases of cancer each year, according to the CDC, and some strains can also cause genital warts. The vaccine, which is a series of two or three shots given over the course of a year (only two if you get the vaccine before age 15), can prevent that. It’s a super-important shot for both boys and girls.

Student perspective

“The HPV vaccination is essentially a cancer vaccination, which is revolutionary.”
—Eliot, Denver, Colorado

So what exactly is HPV? Technically, it’s a group of over 100 related viruses that are mainly spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). HPV can cause bumpy warts (usually on or near the genitals), and at least 13 strains of the virus are known to cause cancer.

About one in four Americans are currently infected with the virus, according to the CDC. Luckily, about 90 percent of HPV infections go away on their own within two years, according to WHO, but the vaccine is still super important. “The vaccine can help protect against the nine types of HPV most commonly linked to some cancers and genital warts,” says Dr. Divya Patel, an associate professor of gynecology at the University of Texas. “The HPV vaccine is preventative care, which means that it’s meant to protect you before the protection becomes necessary,” adds Appleby.

Getting the HPV vaccine does not depend on whether or not a person is currently sexually active. In fact, “the vaccine is really most effective if you get it before you’ve been sexually active,” says Dr. Patel. Even for those who don’t plan on being sexually active for a long time, getting vaccinated is a vital part of preventing serious health issues down the road. Keep in mind, someone who only has one partner can still contract HPV if their partner has ever been exposed, according to the American Cancer Society.

When to get it

The CDC recommends all preteens get the vaccine (preferably at age 11 or 12), but you still have plenty of time if you haven’t gotten it yet. “Catch-up vaccination is recommended all the way up to age 21 for males and age 26 for females,” says Dr. Patel.

How to get it

Talking to your parents about the vaccine can be tricky for some people. “Many colleges and universities recommend or require getting the HPV vaccine, so this can be one way to broach the subject [with your parents],” says Appleby. If you feel comfortable, you can also ask your healthcare providers to help you talk to Mom or Dad about the benefits of the vaccine if they’re having doubts. “When you’re talking with them, emphasize why this is important to you and how you are making a responsible choice. For example, ‘I really care about being healthy and I want to make sure that I do everything I can to stay that way. I learned about the HPV vaccine, and I’d like to get it to protect myself from cancer in the future. Can we make an appointment with my health care provider?’” suggests Appleby.

Vaccine finder

Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY)

Why you need it

The MenACWY vaccine prevents against meningococcal disease (also called meningitis or bacterial meningitis), a very serious and sometimes deadly infection of the brain and spinal cord. It starts with flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, nausea, stiffness in the neck) that rapidly get worse. Some cases can become life-threatening within just a few hours.

Luckily, it’s not super common anymore—thanks to the success of the vaccine. (According to the CDC, the number of cases has gone down by 80 percent since the vaccine became widely recommended for preteens and teens in the ’90s.)  Meningococcal disease is still highly contagious—according to the CDC, it is transmitted through respiratory and throat secretions, so something as simple as a kiss or a cough can cause an outbreak that spreads like wildfire in close quarters. If you plan on living in a dorm or residence hall during college, it’s incredibly important to be immunized.

Student perspective

“Vaccines for eradicated diseases keep them eradicated, and keep us from literally plaguing the entire world. It helps people like me who have a weakened immune system. People that get [vaccinated] keep us safe as well.”
—Emily, sophomore, Tampa, Florida

When to get it

The MenACWY vaccine is recommended for 11- to 18-year-olds. This vaccine is so important that in 39 states, it’s actually required as part of your college admission. As you start thinking about applying to schools, ask your parent or guardian whether you’ve already gotten the shot. If you got the MenACWY vaccination before your 16th birthday, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting a booster shot before you head off to college.

There’s also a second type of vaccine—serogroup B meningococcal vaccines that might be necessary if you have certain health conditions putting you at greater risk (such as a damaged or removed spleen)—so talk to your doctor to make sure you’re covered there too.

Meningococcal ACWY prevention mandates for colleges and universities

How to get it

Because this vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization schedule, you should be able to get it at your family doctor’s office or community health clinic. Many pharmacies also provide the vaccine.

Vaccine finder

Tdap

Why you need it

The Tdap vaccine offers triple threat protection against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis—three diseases that are rare but serious.

Tetanus, which you can get when bacteria gets into cuts, kills about 10 percent of people who contract it, says the CDC, and causes severely painful muscle tightening and stiffness. Diphtheria, while extremely rare, isn’t something to mess with—it can cause breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis, and even death. Pertussis—better known as whooping cough—is slightly more common. It can cause severe coughing spells—we’re talking coughing so hard you can fracture your own ribs—that are grave enough to land 2 percent of adolescents who contract it in the hospital with serious complications.

The vaccine has all but eradicated these scary diseases (reported cases of tetanus and diphtheria have dropped by about 99 percent, and cases of pertussis have dropped by about 80 percent, according to the CDC), but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to get vaccinated. The CDC reported a massive spike in cases of whooping cough in 2012, and infection rates have remained higher than in decades past because of the recent anti-vaccine movement, according to experts at the National Institutes of Health. Double-check and make sure you got the shot.

Student perspective

“I would recommend that anyone do anything they can to prevent being sick.”
—Bethany, South Kingstown, Rhode Island

“[Vaccines] not only keep you safe but the kids around you safe. Contracting one of these diseases can be devastating to someone’s health, especially if they have a compromised immune system.”
—Sara, recent graduate, Greenville, South Carolina

How and when to get it

The Tdap vaccine is required for all high school students in every state except Maine, Delaware, Hawaii, and South Dakota, so you’ve probably already gotten it. If you live in a state that doesn’t require it and you didn’t get it as a preteen, you should talk to your parent about getting it ASAP—the US Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC recommend it for all teens.

A booster shot, which covers tetanus and diphtheria, is recommended every 10 years, so you’ll probably need another shot around college graduation.

Ask your parents if you’ve already been vaccinated, or talk with your family doctor about what shots you might still need. If Tdap is still on your to-do list, you can get the shot from your health care provider, or check out the local pharmacy or clinic for options.

Vaccine finder

Female patient talking with male doctor

Vaccine side effects and safetyAll vaccines can have some side effects—usually mild redness or swelling around the site of the shot (Tdap tends to leave you with a sore arm). You might also get a mild headache or flu-like symptoms right after getting a vaccine, so make sure to ask the health care provider giving you the vaccination what to expect. However, all these vaccines have been through rigorous testing. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that these vaccines cause diseases or serious side effects (such as autism), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It’s important to remember that any small side effects you might experience are nothing compared to the massive, science-backed benefits you’ll get by getting vaccinated. The bottom line: Staying on top of your shots is a super-easy way to boost your health and help protect your community.

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Article sources

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Lisa Ipp, MD, associate director of adolescent medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York.

Divya Patel, PhD, assistant professor, Texas Collaborative for Healthy Mothers and Babies (an affiliate of the University of Texas System).

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