The importance of keeping up with all vaccines

By Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal

With COVID-19 permeating every aspect of our lives these last two years, there’s hardly been a subject that has been more discussed than the COVID vaccine. I continue to be grateful that we have this critical tool now. It has been proven to lessen the severity of the virus if you get sick, lower a patient’s chances of needing to be hospitalized, and reduce the number of COVID-19 deaths.

With the development and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines coming to the forefront of our lives, it’s easy to forget about the fact that people of all ages should be up-to-date on their other vaccines as well.

Though each state determines its own vaccine requirements in order for children to enter public school and daycare, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that common immunizations for children from infancy to age six include:

  • MMR (Measles, mumps, and rubella)
  • Polio (IPV) vaccine
  • TDaP (Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)
  • Hib (Haemophilus influenza type B)
  • Hepatitis A and B
  • RV vaccine (Rotavirus)
  • Varicella vaccine (Chickenpox)
  • PCV 13 (pneumococcal bacterial diseases)
  • Yearly influenza vaccine

Some of these vaccines are series of shots that start in infancy, while others should be received annually, such as the flu shot. When children are 11 or 12, they should receive the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, which has cut the risk of certain adult cancers significantly, including cervical cancer for women.

Adults should remain vigilant about getting boosters for conditions like MMR and TDaP, as well as yearly flu shots. Shingles vaccines are recommended for people 50 and older, and anyone 65 or older should receive the pneumonia vaccine. These are both serious conditions, and shingles is long-lasting and very painful.

Vaccines have long been a controversial topic, but every vaccine is carefully vetted for safety and FDA-approved, or in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, FDA-cleared first, and then approved. Some worry that the COVID-19 vaccines were somehow hurried in their development, but the opposite is true. The medical MRNA technology that’s central to the COVID-19 vaccines was developed over the course of two decades.

Radon levels in the home

Now that we’ve discussed vaccine schedules for children and adults, let’s turn our attention to the topic of radon. Radon is an odorless, colorless radioactive gas that occurs naturally and breaks down into soil, rocks, and groundwater. High levels of exposure to it can cause lung cancer. In fact, exposure to radon is the second overall leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, and the #1 cause for nonsmokers.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), because of our area’s geology, Western North Carolina has the highest radon levels in the state. Radon levels are measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L) and you can test your home for radon levels with a simple, low-cost test kit that you can buy at home stores and other large retail outlets. A high radon level is considered 4 pCi/L picocuries per liter, but the EPA advises mitigation if your level is between 2 and 4 pCi/L.

When your doctor assesses if you’re at higher risk for lung cancer, tobacco use and radon level exposure are the two key factors they will consider. Fortunately, HCH now offers a screening — the low-dose CT scan — that certain patients can get. It’s an important test that allows us to diagnose early stage lung cancer much more frequently. Before its development, diagnosis at an early stage was very rare. 

Radon awareness is especially important in the winter, when we spend much more time in tightly enclosed spaces. Modern houses built within the last couple of decades are especially airtight.

Partner with your primary care physician and talk about your vaccine status at your next wellness exam, as well as the issue of radon. Our primary care providers are your allies, and their goal is to guide your care carefully so it can be as customized as possible.

With it being February, I also couldn’t forget to mention that it’s National Heart Month. Your heart health is another critical topic to discuss with your doctor regularly. Depending on your age and gender, they may recommend tests like echocardiograms and stress tests to monitor your heart health, and they will discuss your lifestyle habits and their impact on your heart. As we know, what you eat and how much you move impacts your heart health significantly. Effective stress management is also key to keeping your heart healthy.

Become familiar with the symptoms of a heart attack, which include chest pain, shortness of breath, and pain in your arm or shoulder. Know too that women can experience different symptoms, including nausea, lightheadedness, and fatigue. Even though your age and gender impact your heart attack risk, there are plenty of things you can do to support your health and lower your risk, such as eating well, exercising, controlling your cholesterol and blood pressure, and refraining from smoking.

Think of you and your physician as troubleshooters for your health. The more you can get ahead of health problems, the better off you will be, with less chance that you’ll need to go to the Emergency Room with a sudden health crisis. We are here to help you prevent illness and treat it if you do experience it, with state-of-the-art technology, exceptional expertise, and compassion.

Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA, is the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

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