What Vaccines Do Adolescents Need?
Starting at age 11 or 12, the CDC recommends four vaccines for almost all children:
Meningococcal: Children should get their first dose of this vaccine at age 11 or 12, and then a second dose at 16. The shots protect them from the bacteria and viruses that cause meningitis, a dangerous condition that happens when the tissues around the brain and spinal cord get infected and swell. Meningococcal diseases are rare, but they can spread through casual contact, such as sharing food and drinks or kissing. They can also spread in places where people are living in close quarters, such as college dorms1, and as a result, teens and young adults are at particularly high risk compared with other age groups.
HPV: The HPV vaccine is licensed, safe, and effective for both females and males ages nine through 26, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that all adolescents begin receiving the vaccine at age 11 or 12. Older adolescents who did not begin the series at ages 11 or 12 are encouraged to start as soon as possible to “catch up.” These catch-up vaccines are recommended up until age 26 for females and until age 21 for males (or age 26 for males who have sex with other males).2 ACIP recommends three doses for those who start the vaccination series at ages 15-26.3 Despite recent evidence that the vaccine has cut HPV infections in teen girls by two thirds, researchers say too few girls and boys are getting vaccinated.4
For full protection, those ages 11 or 12 need two doses of the vaccine, which they should receive within a six- to 12-month window. Teens and young adults who start the series between the ages of 15 and 26, younger adolescents (ages nine to 14) who received two doses of the vaccine less than six months apart, and young people with weakened immune systems need three doses. There are two reasons that the HPV vaccine series is recommended to start at age 11 or 12. First, ideally, adolescents should complete all doses before any sexual activity with another person. Second, the human body produces more antibodies against HPV when given the vaccine early in adolescence, as opposed to later in the teen years or in early adulthood.5
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is very common, infecting about 14 million people every year. Some strains of the virus can cause several types of cancer—specifically, cervical cancer in women, penile cancer in men, and anal or oropharyngeal (throat) cancers in both sexes. Some HPV strains can also cause genital warts through skin-to-skin contact.2
Tdap: All adolescents age 11 or 12 should get this single shot to protect against three diseases: tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Children get protection for these as babies with a shot called DTaP, but this follow-up booster shot gives them more protection since the first one wears off over time.
Tetanus is a bacterial disease that kids can get through cuts or wounds (like stepping on a rusty nail). The infection can cause painful muscle spasms, breathing problems, paralysis, and even death.
All adolescents age 11 or 12 should get a Tdap shot to protect against three diseases: tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.
The Tdap vaccine also prevents diphtheria and pertussis, which both spread through the air with coughs and sneezes. Both can cause dangerous breathing problems. Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, can be especially deadly for babies. If an adolescent has younger siblings or spends time around small children, Tdap can keep them from passing whooping cough on to them.
Influenza: All children age 6 months and older should get a flu shot every year because the flu virus changes every year. Scientists tailor the vaccine to fight the strains they think will be the most common that season. It is especially important for those with diabetes and asthma since the flu is more dangerous for them.
The Importance of Following Through
For some vaccines, it takes only one shot to protect adolescents. Others require two or three doses to fully guard against diseases or infections. Each shot is important. Not following through means that adolescents are at risk for serious diseases.
When One Dose Is Not Enough
Why do some vaccines come in a series instead of just one dose? It is based on how they interact with an adolescents’ immune system.
Sometimes, the first dose of a vaccine is a primer, preparing the body to build its full response with the second or third dose. A single dose might give protection for a while, but it will not last nearly as long as the series will. Some childhood vaccines wear off over time. To stay protected from tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, adolescents need the booster shot, Tdap, at age 11 or 12. The influenza virus changes from year to year, meaning scientists have to make a new vaccine for each flu season. Adolescents who do not get a flu shot each year will not be protected from that season’s strains.
Vaccines for Some Preteens
If adolescents have chronic health problems, are getting certain kinds of medical treatment, or will be traveling abroad in the near future, they may need different vaccines than other kids their age. Their doctor can advise whether these immunizations are needed:
Adolescents with chronic health problems may need different vaccines than other kids their age.
Pneumococcal: Children ages 6 to 18 who are at high risk for pneumonia may need a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13), a pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23), or both.
Hepatitis A: Doctors recommend this vaccine for people of all ages who have a high risk for the Hepatitis A virus, or who live in communities that have had outbreaks of it. Healthy people can also receive this shot. A doctor can advise whether an adolescent is at risk of Hepatitis A.
Other vaccines: People planning to travel abroad may need extra shots, depending on where they are going. For example, an adolescent may need shots for hepatitis A, yellow fever, or typhoid if they are spending time in countries where these illnesses are common.
If an adolescent is more than a month behind on their vaccines, they can catch up. Their doctor can advise on how to follow the CDC’s guidelines to get them caught up safely.
Even if kids have missed the second or third dose in a series, like the ones for the HPV vaccine, they can usually finish the series without starting over. To view which vaccines and boosters are recommended for adolescents, this easy-to-use chart from the CDC lists the immunizations recommended by ACIP for children and adolescents ages 7 to 18. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and all major medical groups adopt the ACIP recommendations.2
Vaccines for Traveling Abroad
Adolescents should visit their doctor before they travel to discuss any vaccines, medicines, and other recommendations. It is best to do this at least four to six weeks before traveling to ensure the completion of recommended vaccine series and/or to get any medications they might need.
Pediatricians often carry most of the vaccines that adolescents will need for travel, including the standard adolescent vaccines. There are certain vaccines that may need to be called in to a pharmacy, such as the oral typhoid vaccine. Travel clinics and health departments can also provide vaccines if adolescents or their families are not able to get them at a doctor’s office. The CDC’s travel website has listings of travel clinics.
Videos: Learn About Key Vaccines
Pediatrician Jennifer Shu, MD, provides information about adolescent vaccines in these videos:
- Meningitis Vaccine
- HPV: Human Papillomavirus Vaccine
- HPV Vaccine
- Tdap: Tetanus, Diptheria, and Pertussis Vaccine
- Flu Vaccines for Teens
- Catch-Up Vaccines
- Traveling and Studying Abroad Vaccines
Much of this content first appeared on WebMD, reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD, as part of a collaboration among the HHS Office on Women’s Health; the HHS Office of Adolescent Health; the HHS National Vaccine Program Office; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the HHS Center for Medicare and Medicaid services to develop web content on vaccines for preteens and teens.
Content last reviewed on August 6, 2019