The Pneumonia Vaccine: Who Needs It and Why

This time of year many of us will be getting the flu shot. But there are other vaccines that are important to keep us healthy and ward off serious illnesses. One of them is the pneumonia vaccine.

Pneumonia is a lung infection that can cause mild to severe illness in adults and children. It is the leading cause of death in children under the age of five. Adults 65 and older who develop pneumonia are also at an increased risk of life-threatening complications.

You can get pneumonia through bacteria and viruses living in your nose, sinuses or mouth that may spread to your lungs. It may also spread from person to person by drop­lets in the air.

Who is a good candidate for the pneumonia vaccine?

The pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine can help prevent the infection. Most adults only require one shot every five years. It is routinely given to infants and children under age two as a series of four doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The vaccine is especially recommended for those who are at a high risk of developing the illness, including:

  • Adults who are 65-years-old or older.
  • People with weakened immune systems due to a chronic illness such as asthma, HIV/AIDS, COPD, heart failure or diabetes.
  • Children who are younger than 5-years-old.
  • Children who are ages 5-18 years of age with chronic medical conditions, such as heart or lung diseases or cancer.

Smokers and individuals with a poor diet or who abuse alcohol are at an increased risk as well.

Brian Kaminski, DO, emergency medical physician, sees hundreds of cases of pneumonia each year at ProMedica Toledo Hospital. He highly recommends that senior citizens and young children get vaccinated. While vaccines cannot prevent all cases of infection, Dr. Kaminski advises that they are a safe and effective way to shorten the length of time someone has the illness, minimize symptoms and reduce complications.

“The pneumonia vaccine is at least 90% effective in reducing the incidence of invasive disease like pneumonia from the pneumococcal bacteria.”

“The pneumonia vaccine is at least 90% effective in reducing the incidence of invasive disease like pneumonia from the pneumococcal bacteria,” Dr. Kaminski explains. “Although some who receive the vaccine will experience mild symptoms (low-grade fever, soreness, headache and fatigue), serious reactions are almost nonexistent and nearly everyone should feel safe receiving this vaccine.”

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In addition to the vaccine, Dr. Kaminski recommends good hygiene habits, such as washing your hands regularly and disinfecting desks, keyboards and other office equipment, as well as sinks and other commonly touched surfaces in your home.

Dr. Kaminski also advises having an annual physical and that smokers quit smoking to reduce their risk (take the first step here).

When should you seek medical care?

Common symptoms of pneumonia may include:

  • A fever with shaking chills.
  • A phlegmy cough that lingers.
  • Chest pain caused by breathing or coughing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness.

Dr. Kaminski stresses that newborns and infants may not show any signs of the illness, so parents need to be especially attentive.

“If your newborn or infant is running a fever and has other symptoms like difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, or lethargy, parents need to get them to your pediatrician, urgent care or the emergency room depending on the severity of the symptoms,” Dr. Kaminski says.

And for older adults, a low-grade fever and a sudden change in mental status such as confusion or disorientation may also be signs of pneumonia or another serious infection.

“Although the pneumonia vaccine does not protect against all types of pneumonia, it does offer a significant safeguard against one of the most common and severe forms of bacterial pneumonia.”

For more information about the vaccine, symptoms, treatment and prevention, talk with your primary care provider and visit the CDC or National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.