Senior Health

Childhood Diseases that Can Affect Adults

Many childhood diseases can actually cause worse symptoms for adults than children. Adults may even find themselves requiring hospitalization for serious symptoms beyond the rash or fever a child may get. The good news is that many adults are immune from most childhood diseases either because they had them when they were young or because they had immunizations as a child.

The challenge is that some adults may not know if they have had a particular childhood disease or vaccination, especially if their parents have passed away or family medical records are not easily accessible.

And some of us just didn’t come down with all of the typical diseases when we were young, or didn’t get immunized. So now, as adults, are we at risk for greater complications if we are exposed?

What should you be most concerned about?

Chicken Pox

What’s the danger to adults? This very contagious childhood disease is much worse if contracted as an adult. Not only will adults get the itchy rash and fever, but they are more likely to contract pneumonia and other complications.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults in the US are about 25 times more likely to experience serious complications from chicken pox infections than are children. It is estimated that of adults who contract chicken pox, some 20 percent will get pneumonia and another 10 percent will get shingles. Other issues such as encephalitis (brain inflammation) and hepatitis (when your body’s immune system attacks its own liver) occur but are rare.

What’s your risk?

  • Older people, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women are at greater risk for complications should they contract chicken pox and not have immunity.
  • If you don’t have immunity (you didn’t get chickenpox as a child or didn’t get the vaccine), the CDC and dozens of other governmental health and aging related agencies recommend you should get the vaccine now. The vaccine works in over 90 percent of people.
  • Even if you were infected as a child – or had the vaccine – you can still be at risk for shingles. The chicken pox virus can remain dormant in the body for years and reactivate itself in later life. Shingles is an incredibly painful localized rash and can also damage a person’s vision. The CDC estimates there are one million new cases of shingles each year, with about half of the cases occurring in people 60 years or older. There is a vaccine available for shingles that is recommended after age 60.
  • The chickenpox vaccine is associated with fewer risks for adults than catching chickenpox itself.

Note: Some people continue to refrain from getting recommended immunizations due to concerns over the vaccines themselves. Here is a helpful article (LINK: on the topic of the so-called “vaccination debate”. Bottom line is that the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Alliance for Aging and many other major health organizations continue to support the need for and the benefits of vaccinations.


What’s the danger to adults? General symptoms are similar to those experienced by children but the risk for complications is greater in adults. Pneumonia in particular is one complication seen in adults. Adults are twice as likely to develop pneumonia and three times as likely to develop encephalitis.

What’s your risk?

  • The elderly and immunocompromised are at greatest risk for complications, in addition to pregnant women.
  • If you were born before 1957, you are likely to have been exposed to measles and be protected. You can get laboratory confirmation of your immunity.
  • If you were vaccinated as a child with the two-dose MMR shot, you are unlikely to get measles. The two-dose vaccine is 97 percent effective. The MMR vaccine protects for measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles).
  • If you were vaccinated getting only one dose (used until the early 1990s) you may not be fully protected and the CDC recommends you consider getting two additional doses of the MMR vaccine.


What’s the danger to adults? You all know the symptoms and misery! Additionally, the flu in adults can also escalate to ear infections, bacterial pneumonia, sinus infections, and dehydration. Underlying chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart conditions, and lung conditions like asthma can be worsened. Adults age 65 and older are at greater risk for complications. It’s estimated that 71 to 85 percent of flu-related deaths involve people 65 years and older.

What’s your risk?

  • The CDC recommends an annual flu shot, with the vaccine generally being between 70 and 90 percent effective for healthy people under the age of 65 (somewhat depending on how well that year’s vaccine matched the actual circulating strains).
  • People 65 and older should also ask their doctors to be treated with influenza antiviral drugs if they get the flu because this may lessen the duration of the flu as well as potential complications.
  • People over the age of 65 should also get a pneumococcal vaccination. This vaccine protects against pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and meningitis. 5 to 10 million people get pneumonia each year and according to the Alliance for Aging it is the fifth most frequent cause of hospitalization in the US.

Fifth Disease

What’s the danger to adults? Fifth Disease is a highly contagious virus resulting in cold symptoms and a reddish rash on the cheeks and body of children. 80 percent of adults contracting Fifth Disease will suffer some level of joint discomfort and arthritic effect, with a small number experiencing long-term problems with painful joints.

What’s your risk?

There is no vaccination for the disease so exposure will likely result in contracting it. Women experience greater issues such as joint pain and swelling. Avoidance of children who are contagious in the best prevention, The facial rash is readily identifiable in most cases.


What’s the danger to adults? Mumps is another highly infectious disease that causes fever, weakness, and telltale swollen salivary glands (under your ears). Adults can suffer complications including encephalitis, hearing loss, meningitis (an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord), and inflammation of the testicles (in men) or ovaries (in women).

What’s your risk?

Infants receive two doses of the MMR vaccine, which only provides about an 88 percent protection rate for children through their early life. The effectiveness fades over time so protection may wane by adulthood. Booster shots are available.

Whooping Cough

What’s the danger to adults? This highly contagious bacterial infection – also known as Pertussis – is actually much more serious for infants than adults. About half of infants under the age of one contracting it will require hospitalization. The disease causes weeks of coughing, apnea (in babies), vomiting and a high pitched, “whoop” sound (in babies and children). Coughing can go on for many months.

For teens and adults, there can be complications caused by the coughing fits themselves, such as fainting, loss of bladder control, and in a small number of adults the couching may even cause rib fractures. More worrisome, especially should you be around infants, is that you are highly contagious for a serious life-threatening disease affecting infants.

What’s your risk?

  • If you haven’t had the pertussis vaccine (usually given as an infant in a series called DTaP which also provides protection against diphtheria and tetanus) you should consider getting a booster shot called TdaP. This provides protection for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.
  • If you had the DTaP series as a child, note that the vaccine fades over time so the booster is recommended.
  • Note that outside of the need for the one-time TdaP booster, there is a secondary recommendation for a tetanus and diphtheria booster (Td) every 10 years.

Final thoughts

The CDC and other health organizations continue to work to educate older Americans as to the importance of vaccinations in regards to these and other diseases. One in four physician visits is tied to infectious diseases.

Talk with your doctor about recommended vaccinations for infectious diseases as well as tetanus, another important health issue seen in adults who may no longer have the protection provided by a childhood immunization.

Remember, getting vaccinated will not only protect you from illness but can protect those you may live with or interact with, especially infants and immunocompromised individuals. This is called “herd immunity”. What it means is that if enough people in a close community are protected through vaccinations, then the community overall will be more protected (such that pregnant women, infants and people with chronic issues and weakened immune systems are better protected even if they haven’t had a given vaccination).

There are many other things you can do to minimize the chance of your being exposed or passing along infectious disease. The CDC suggests the following:

Diane Blum is a freelance writer. Please visit her at or at

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