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Caring for Teens: Healthcare For Teens and Young Adults

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Adolescence is a period of rapid growth and development. As such, proper attention to healthcare is essential. During this time, adolescents will need to learn to manage their own healthcare and should be developing a healthy lifestyle that will be maintained throughout their adult lives. Parents will want to ensure their youth continue to receive routine, annual physical examinations from their pediatricians or family doctors.

doctorMaintaining regular, routine healthcare exams for teens is important for many reasons. For youth with chronic health conditions such as allergies, asthma, diabetes, or old sports injuries, these annual visits ensure that youth and their healthcare providers are regularly monitoring youths' symptoms and adapting treatment plans to meet the changing needs and requirements of their growing bodies. For healthy and well teens, these regular exams provide important education, vaccinations, and feedback that will enable them to remain on a healthy track. Healthcare providers offer education about developing healthy lifestyle habits and regular physical exams provide an ideal opportunity for youth to ask questions about their growing, changing bodies. Routine exams throughout the adolescent period also allow healthcare providers to detect and address the early warning signs of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, digestive problems, depression, eating disorders, and addictions. Dental and vision care, reproductive healthcare, and vaccinations are also important components of adolescent health.

Adolescent Vaccinations

Annual physicals are the perfect time to make sure that youth are caught up on their vaccinations. Most healthcare professionals recommend the following vaccinations, but be sure to check with each child's own healthcare team for their specific recommendations:

  • The Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis (TDap) vaccine should be administered around age 11-12 and again at a decade later, around age 21-22 years. This immunization protects children from diphtheria, a severe but rare respiratory disease; tetanus, a disease that can cause paralysis from deep, dirty wounds; and pertussis, or whooping cough.
  • The Meningococcal (MCV4) vaccine protects youth from meningitis, a bacterial or viral infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Early symptoms of the disease include fever, chills, vomiting, neck stiffness, headache, and sleepiness, which can often look like the flu. However, this disease can quickly worsen, causing seizures, brain damage, and even death.
  • Teens should also get the booster, adult Hepatitis B (HepB) vaccine sometime between ages 11 and 16 years. This immunization protects against a virus that can cause severe liver damage and disease. This vaccine is given in two injections that are four months apart.
  • Young adolescents should also get the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination around age 11 or 12 year, before they can potentially become sexually active. HPV is the most common form of sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Most adolescents and young adults contract the virus within the first year or two of becoming sexually active. HPV infections are responsible for almost all cases of cervical cancer and precancerous cervical lesions in women, which can be fatal. HPV can also cause genital warts in guys and girls. Often, HPV infections cause no obvious symptoms for guys or girls. That means many people can be spreading the disease without knowing it. The HPV vaccine does not protect youth from all strains of HPV, but it does guard against the two most common types of HPV that cause the majority of cervical cancers and genital warts. The vaccine is given in three different injections. The second injection should be administered two months after the first, and the last injection should be administered four months after the second.
  • Adolescents should also get flu shots every year. This vaccine protects children and adults from influenza, a virus that can cause respiratory distress or even death in extreme cases. This virus is spread easily from person-to-person, especially when people live in close quarters, such as shared apartments and school dormitories. When youth receive a flu vaccine before the peak of flu season, they are more likely to be protected from this virus.
  • Some adolescents should receive other vaccinations if they are in high-risk categories. For example, some youth should receive the Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV). This vaccine protects against certain strains of pneumonia, which can be deadly for youth with certain medical conditions such as asthma or immune-compromising diseases. Its protection lasts for five years, so youth may need to get it multiple times during adolescence.

Dental & Vision Exams

It's also important that youth also receive routine dental and vision check-ups. Adolescents should go to the dentist every six months for routine cleaning and examinations. Youth may need to see a dental professional even more often if they need orthodontics such as braces or retainers, to make sure the orthodontics are re-aligning the teeth as intended.

Although many schools may routinely screen for certain types of vision problems, these screenings are not the same as a full and complete eye exam and are not intended to detect all types of vision or eye problems. Therefore, all youth should have regular eye exams. Youth who wear glasses or contact lens should also go to the eye doctor annually. Teens' eyes can continue to change during adolescence, so prescriptions for glasses and contacts may change over the years. Good vision is important because it enables youth to be successful at work and at school. Youth should be followed by an eye doctor especially if they use contact lenses, so that the doctor can make sure the youth is taking adequate care of their contacts and eyes. Contact lenses need to be cleaned daily as recommended by the contact manufacturer and eye doctor, and they should be replaced as recommended to prevent damage or infection to the eye.