Your vaccination guide: Which ones you need, what they do, and where to get them

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In college, more than just your class schedule and study habits shift—for many students, college is a time to start taking control of your own health care. Instead of Mom or Dad calling the shots, it’s increasingly likely that you’re the one making your doctor appointments and keeping track of your health history.

A major part of that is your vaccination history. While most vaccinations are recommended and sometimes required (especially for students involved in the health care fields) before you hit campus, you should still be aware of yearly doses like the flu shot, boosters for vaccines you got when you were younger, or first-time doses you might still need.

Vaccines are one of the best possible ways to protect your health and the health of those around you—plus, they can prevent you from taking the blame for spreading that nasty flu around the res hall. Other good news? Vaccines are easy to get.

Student perspective

“Vaccines help sustain health for you, your family, and the community.”
—Kevin M., first-year graduate student at California State University, Fresno

We want to make the immunization process as painless as possible, so here’s what you need to know about the most important vaccines to have in college—what they are, why they’re so necessary, 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 you want 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, a medical school in New York City. “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. On average, the flu lasts about eight days, and during that time you’ll be more likely to miss lectures and hit up campus health services, according to a 2010 study published in PLOS One. Research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that 46 percent of college students did poorly on an assignment after getting the flu.

When researchers from the PLOS One study modeled the effect of the vaccine, they found that if just 20 percent of people on campus got their flu shot, the number of people who would get the flu that season would drop from 69 percent (if no one got vaccinated) to less than 50 percent. The researchers also found that if just 60 percent of people on campus got vaccinated, less than 1 percent of the campus population would be likely to end up with the flu. This process is called herd immunity—and it works.

Key facts about the seasonal flu vaccine

The CDC recommends everyone get a flu vaccine each year. “This, of course, includes healthy college students,” says Dr. Ipp. On a college campus, the virus can spread crazy fast. “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, staff physician at the University of Connecticut. Plus, getting yourself vaccinated will help protect the very young and the very old—such as kids or grandparents you’ll see when you head home for break—who are “vulnerable to serious complications of flu because they don’t have the pulmonary and other reserve to tolerate the ravages of this lower respiratory track infection.”

When to get it

Every year, as soon as it becomes available, which is usually September–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 H., third-year student at Northern Illinois University

How it works

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)

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 it—so if you do get sick after getting your shot, that means you were already exposed to the germs or were exposed in that two-week window.

How to get it

Flu season lasts from fall to spring, but if you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, you still can (and should), according to the CDC. Check in with your on-campus health center or your health care provider to get your seasonal flu vaccine. You can also find the vaccine at most community clinics and pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens. The flu shot typically costs around $40–$70, but under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are required to cover it in full. 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

Patient receiving vaccination

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine

Why you need it

“The human papillomavirus (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.” 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 three shots given over the course of a year (only two if you got the vaccine before the age of 15), can prevent that. In other words, it’s a super-important shot for both men and women.

Student perspective

“The HPV vaccination is essentially a cancer vaccination, which is revolutionary.”
—Eliot A., fourth-year student at Metropolitan State University of Denver

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 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. “It won’t make any STIs [sexually transmitted infections] you already have go away, and it won’t cause an STI if you don’t have one.”

While it’s true that your risk for getting HPV goes up as your number of sexual partners increases, someone who has only had sex with one partner can still contract HPV if their partner has ever been exposed, according to the American Cancer Society. Getting the HPV vaccine does not depend on whether or not you are 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 if you’ve never been sexually active and don’t plan on being for a long time, getting vaccinated is a vital part of preventing serious health issues down the road.

When to get it

While the CDC recommends the vaccine for pre-teens (preferably at 11 or 12), it’s not too late if you haven’t gotten it. “Catch-up vaccination is recommended all the way up to age 21 for males and age 26 for females,” says Dr. Patel. Men who have sex with men, transgender individuals, and those with compromised immune systems (such as from HIV) can also get the vaccine through age 26.

How to get it

If you’re not sure if you’ve gotten the vaccine (or the full series of shots), start by asking your parent or contacting your pediatrician for your immunization record. If you still need the vaccine, here’s how to get it:

  • Many campus health centers offer the HPV vaccine, so that’s an easy place to start.
  • You can also get the vaccine at many local pharmacies, such as CVS or Walgreens, or health centers, such as Planned Parenthood.
  • Under the Affordable Care Act, all health insurance companies are required to cover the vaccine without any cost to you.
  • To pay for the vaccine out of pocket (meaning without insurance), the series of three shots will cost around $700 at a local pharmacy. Prices may vary at your doctor’s office or campus health clinic, so ask them directly.
  • If you do not have insurance and are 18 years old or younger, check out the federally funded Vaccines for Children program, which might be able to help offset costs.

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’s 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—aka res halls and crowded classrooms. It’s incredibly important to be immunized.

Student perspective

“If it weren’t for vaccines, serious illnesses and diseases would still be plaguing society today. (Polio, for example.)”
—Name withheld, fourth-year student at Berea College in Kentucky

When to get it

The MenACWY vaccine is recommended for all first-year college students age 21 and younger who plan to live in residence halls (though others can still receive the vaccine through age 23). This vaccine is so important that in 39 states, it’s actually required as part of your college admission. College students have a higher risk of getting bacterial meningitis than other young adults, according to the CDC, which is why they recommend you get it even if your school or state doesn’t require it.

Meningococcal ACWY prevention mandates for colleges and universities

How to get it

The CDC recommends getting the shot between the ages of 11 and 12—if you can’t remember whether you’ve had it, ask your parent or contact your childhood doctor for your medical records. If you did get the MenACWY vaccination and it was before your 16th birthday, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting a booster shot before heading to campus for maximum protection.

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.

Because this vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization schedule, you should be able to find it at your family doctor’s office. Campus health centers, federally funded community health centers, and many pharmacies also provide the vaccine. Just like the HPV vaccine, the ACA requires that all insurance providers cover it. Out of pocket, it costs around $150.

Vaccine finder


Why you need it

The Tdap vaccine is a triple threat, protecting you 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 rates of infections 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 P., fourth-year student at the University of Rhode Island

How and when to get it

Like the HPV vaccine and MenACWY, the Tdap vaccine is recommended for 11- and 12-year-olds, but if you didn’t get it as a preteen, you should still get it ASAP, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC. After you’ve had your Tdap vaccine, you’ll need a Td booster shot (to renew your protection against tetanus and diphtheria) every 10 years.

Again, start with your campus health center or current health care provider. You can also check out the local pharmacy or clinic.

Vaccine finder

Female patient talking with male doctor

Vaccine side effects and safety

All 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 of these vaccines have been through rigorous testing. There’s 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

Lizzy Appleby, MSW, youth program manager at Angles reproductive healthcare clinic, Illinois.

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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