Do I need to get the shingles vaccine?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have never had chickenpox. Do I still need to get a shingles vaccine?

DEAR READER: Not everyone knows the connection between chickenpox (a childhood disease) and shingles (a condition that usually hits adults). So let's begin with that. Chickenpox and shingles are both caused by the same virus: varicella-zoster virus (VZV). Once you have had chickenpox, VZV remains in your body's nerve tissues for the rest of your life, alive but inactive.

Should I get vaccinated against whooping cough?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My daughter wants me to get a booster shot for pertussis. She says it will help protect her young kids against whooping cough. Is this true?

DEAR READER: Your daughter is right. Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes violent coughing. The coughing makes it hard to breathe and produces a deep "whooping" sound. Pertussis can occur at any age, but infants and young children are most likely to become seriously ill from the infection.

Are flu shots safe for children?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Does my child really need a flu shot? How do I know it's safe?

DEAR READER: Every fall and winter, parents face the question: Should my child get an influenza (flu) shot? Many parents worry about risks and side effects, and if the shot is really necessary or worthwhile.

Why do I need a tetanus booster shot?

DEAR DOCTOR K: What is tetanus? And why do I need a tetanus booster shot?

DEAR READER: When I graduated from medical school, I assumed I would never see a patient suffering from tetanus. It had become unusual since tetanus immunization became available. But it didn't take long for me to see my first case.

Follow-up questions on shingles vaccine

Readers have sent me many follow-up questions after my recent shingles vaccine column. It's great to see your interest, and I wanted to answer the most common follow-up questions I received.

To recap, shingles is caused by the reactivation of the virus that also causes chickenpox, varicella-zoster. Most people are infected with this virus in childhood and remain infected for the rest of their lives.

Should boys be vaccinated against HPV?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I know it's recommended that young girls get vaccinated against HPV, since this virus can cause cervical cancer. What about boys? At one time I read it was not recommended for them, but recently I heard that this had changed. Has it changed, and why?

DEAR READER: You're right. The CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has recently recommended that boys also get the HPV vaccine.

Who should get the shingles vaccine?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm a healthy, 65-year-old woman. I recently read that I should get the shingles vaccine. What is shingles? And should I get the vaccine?

DEAR READER: Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a case of chickenpox, the virus can lie dormant inside your nerves. Some people get infected with the virus without knowing it -- that is, without getting chickenpox. It gets into their body, infects some nerves and remains inactive. People catch the virus from other people, usually during childhood.