What You Should Know to Keep Your Teenager Healthy

When you’re expecting a baby, you’re inundated with information on how to keep your newborn healthy. But as those bundles of joy outgrow your lap, toddle through the early years and race toward adolescence, advice becomes scarce.

Pediatricians see children of all ages and stages. We talked to UNC Health pediatricians Adam Ottley, MD and Stephanie Sussman, MD about age-specific guidelines for preventive care that can help keep your adolescent healthy. Here’s what we learned.

All Teens: Annual Well Visit and Flu and COVID-19 Shots

Each year, adolescents should receive a physical examination and a depression screening. While mood swings are common, about 1 in 5 adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder, Dr. Ottley says.

“It is important that parents and friends do not become dismissive of the signs of mental health disorders. Adolescent well visits allow us to use screening tools to identify those with problems that may otherwise go unrecognized.”

Like younger children and adults, teenagers benefit from an annual flu shot and, during the ongoing pandemic, a COVID-19 vaccine. Neither vaccine completely prevents all infections, but they do greatly reduce the severity of illness and the risk of complications. That means less time out of school and activities and a reduced risk of long-term symptoms.

Age 11: Time for Soon-to-be-a-Teen Vaccines

This is the age for several vaccines: Tdap, meningitis and human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV vaccine is typically given at the 11-year-old well visit, but it can be given as early as age 9. It is given as two doses, separated by six to 12 months, if the series is started before age 15. Three doses are necessary when starting the series at age 15 and older.

Providers encourage patients to get the HPV vaccine before age 15—before they are likely to be exposed to the virus. Plus, “younger adolescents have a better immune response to it,” she says.

Age 12: One-on-One Discussion with Your Preteen

Your child’s pediatrician may ask you to step out of the room during this well visit. Dr. Ottley says pediatricians do this to build a strong, trusting relationship with adolescent patients. “With the parent out of the room, we have a tactful but open discussion with the adolescent about topics such as education, puberty, drugs and alcohol, sexuality, mental health, and safety in relationships at home, school and with peers. This allows us to assess for risk, provide personalized education and intervene when necessary.”

Ages 13-15: Watch Out For Common Teen Health Risks

Scoliosis can develop during the rapid period of growth in the early teen years and can be detected during a routine physical. In addition, Dr. Sussman says it is important to discuss and caution against the effects of smoking, drugs and alcohol during these visits.

Age 16: Protect Your Teen Against Bacterial Meningitis

A booster dose of the meningitis vaccine is recommended to protect against meningococcal disease, a serious infection that can lead to bacterial meningitis. The vaccine protects against four types of meningococcal bacteria (types A, C, W and Y). At age 16, your child’s pediatrician should also discuss another meningitis vaccine that protects against a fifth type, called serogroup B meningococcus.

For more information, talk to your child’s pediatrician or find one near you.

This article was originally published Nov. 27, 2017 and updated Nov. 29, 2021.

Adam Ottley, MD, is with UNC Pediatrics at Garner and specializes in primary care, general pediatrics and adolescent medicine.

Stephanie Sussman, MD, is with UNC Pediatrics at Weaver Crossing and specializes in primary care, general pediatrics and adolescent medicine.