Worried About Pneumonia? Why the Vaccine Is Your Best Defense

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Worried About Pneumonia? Why the Vaccine Is Your Best Defense

Every year, your doctor likely reminds you of the benefits of getting a flu shot. But there’s another vaccine you should discuss with your doctor, too — one that helps protect you from pneumonia.

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While not a seasonal vaccine or as widely prescribed as the flu shot, the pneumococcal vaccine helps protect those most at risk for serious pneumococcal infections that can lead to complications, a hospital stay or even death.

“And in the age of COVID-19, it’s especially important to focus on the health and safety of your lungs,” says pulmonologist Anu Suri, MD, FCCP. For those who have preexisting conditions, even more so.

What you should know about pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs that typically stems from several kinds of germs, most often bacteria and viruses.

Symptoms can develop gradually or suddenly. They include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • Loss of appetite.

Early detection is often challenging because many people with these symptoms assume they have a cold or the flu.

It’s important to also note that the vaccine helps protect against some — but not all — bacterial pneumonia.

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“There are dozens of different types of bacterial pneumonia,” says Dr. Suri. “The vaccine will certainly reduce your risk of the most common bacterial pneumonia.”

Who should get the pneumonia vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the pneumococcal vaccine for those who fall into the following groups:

  • All babies and children younger than 2 years old.
  • All adults 65 years or older.
  • Adults 19 through 64 years old who smoke cigarettes.
  • Children older than 2 and adults younger than 65 who have certain chronic diseases (those that affect the heart, lung and kidney).
  • Those who are at increased risk for certain diseases (diabetes, chronic heart, lung and liver disease) and those who have impaired immune systems.

The recommendations are sometimes confusing, so it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about your questions and concerns, Dr. Suri says.

And don’t wait to have that conversation. “This is an infection you see year-round,” she adds.

Who should not get the pneumonia vaccine?

Again, it’s best to determine this with your doctor, but as a general rule the CDC states you should not get the pneumococcal vaccine if:

  • You or your child has had a severe or life-threatening allergy to the current PCV13 or Prevnar 13®) vaccine, the past PCV7 vaccine or any vaccine containing diphtheria toxoid.
  • You or your child are currently battling a severe illness.

How does the pneumonia vaccine work?

There are currently two vaccines administered in the United States:

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  1. Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13 or Prevnar 13®). This vaccine joins a protein which helps build immunity. Infants and very young children do not respond to polysaccharide antigens, but linkage to this protein enables the developing immune system to recognize and process polysaccharide antigens, leading to production of antibody. It helps protect against disease from13 types of Streptococcal pneumoniae capsular serotypes that are the most common cause of serious infection. Typically, children receive three doses and adults at high risk of severe pneumococcal infection receive one dose. 
  2. Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23 or Pneumovax23®). This vaccine looks like certain bacteria. This stimulates the body to build protection against the 23 serotypes of Streptococcal pneumonia contained in the vaccine. These 23 serotypes now represent at least 50% to 60% of pneumococcal disease isolates in adults. Most people receive a single dose, with one to two boosters recommended for some. 

Know the facts about the pneumonia vaccine

Just as with a flu shot, and now the COVID-19 vaccines, some people believe that getting a pneumococcal vaccine will cause them to come down with the disease or experience long-term side effects.

“This is absolutely not true,” Dr. Suri says.

Not only will the pneumococcal vaccine help reduce the risk of contracting certain types of bacterial pneumonia, it also guards against serious consequences resulting from the flu and severe infections, such as sepsis.

For young children, older adults, smokers and those with other risk factors, the vaccine is a healthy choice to make.

“I can’t see any reason to avoid this vaccine and every reason to get it,” she says.

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