Vaccines work by triggering your immune system to build up your body’s natural defenses. They help you fight off infections when you’re exposed to respiratory pathogens.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought more attention to the potential severity of respiratory illnesses and the importance of vaccination. Recently, surges in pathogens like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) have led to new efforts to stop the spread of common illnesses.

Vaccination is an important part of medical care in childhood. Adults also should keep up with vaccinations. They’re important for respiratory illnesses as well as other serious conditions.

Respiratory infections start when bacteria or a virus that can cause disease, also called a germ or pathogen, enters your airways.

This usually happens when you breathe in droplets that contain the pathogen.

Infection happens when the pathogen gets into the mucosa, or inner lining, of the upper airway.

The pathogen then moves throughout the body and symptoms occur after an incubation period. The length of this period depends on the type of virus or bacteria. For the common cold, the time between the pathogen entering the body and symptoms starting can be as little as 10–12 hours. For influenza, it’s 3–4 days.

Common pathogens that lead to respiratory infections include:


  • adenovirus
  • enterovirus
  • influenza virus
  • rhinovirus
  • RSV
  • SARS-CoV-2


  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae

Most vaccines for respiratory diseases contain a whole or partial copy of a germ that causes the illness.

During vaccination, this part of the pathogen is introduced to your body, but it doesn’t cause you to become ill. Instead, your immune system recognizes the germ and learns to fight the pathogen. This way, you already have built-in defenses if you encounter the virus or bacteria in the future.

Types of vaccines include:

  • inactivated vaccine: uses a dead version of the germ
  • live vaccine: uses a weak but live version of the germ
  • messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine: makes proteins to activate a specific immune response
  • subunit, recombinant, polysaccharide, and conjugate vaccines: use pieces of the germ, such as a protein or casing
  • toxoid vaccine: uses the toxins caused by a germ to fight the illness the toxin causes
  • viral vector vaccine: uses a harmless virus to deliver instructions to the immune system to fight a harmful germ

Depending on the type of vaccine, you may need to get more than one dose or a booster shot for optimal effectiveness.

Many conditions with respiratory symptoms have vaccines, including:

  • COVID-19
  • diphtheria
  • Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type B)
  • influenza
  • measles
  • pneumococcal disease
  • polio
  • RSV
  • rubella
  • typhoid fever
  • whooping cough (pertussis)

To get vaccinated, speak with your primary care doctor. If they don’t have a vaccine you need in their office, they may be able to refer you elsewhere. A local pharmacy or community health clinic may also be a good resource for common vaccines, among other options.

Vaccines help prevent illness at all ages. The effects of childhood vaccines can wear off over time, so adults may need to receive additional doses later in life. As people age, they can also become more vulnerable to new and different types of illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following vaccines for all adults:

  • COVID-19 vaccine
  • Influenza (flu) vaccine
  • Td or Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) vaccine

People with certain conditions are more likely to have serious illness because of vaccine-preventable diseases. Those with COPD or asthma may have serious complications from the flu, for example.

The CDC advises people with lung disease to get the pneumococcal vaccine (against pneumococcal disease) and recombinant zoster vaccine (against shingles) in addition to the other vaccines recommended for adults.

Adult vaccination schedule

If you have certain risk factors, your doctor may recommend additional vaccines. For example, the CDC recommends a Tdap vaccine one time for each pregnancy.

Recommended vaccines for all adults:

  • COVID-19: 2- or 3-dose series followed by boosters
  • Influenza: 1 dose annually
  • Td or Tdap: 1 dose Tdap, then Td or Tdap booster once every 10 years

Recommended vaccines for adults up to age 64 years:

  • Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR): 1 or 2 doses
  • Varicella: 2 doses for those up to age 50 if born in 1980 or later
  • Hepatitis B: 2, 3, or 4 doses

Recommended vaccines for older adults 65 years and older:

  • Zoster recombinant (shingles): 2 doses
  • Pneumococcal: 1 or 2 doses

Vaccines increase your body’s ability to fight respiratory diseases by introducing a weakened or partial version of the disease-causing virus or bacteria. This allows your immune system to recognize the pathogen in the future and defend you before you ever get sick from it.

Infections from respiratory viruses, such as RSV, are surging at different times of year than they have in the past. These illnesses have the potential to spread among the U.S. population, sometimes with severe complications in those who are particularly vulnerable.

Following a regular schedule of adult vaccination can help to prevent the risk of serious illness.