Everything you need to know about the pneumonia vaccine

During the winter months, many people think that they have a nasty cold or flu, but it turns out to be pneumonia – an illness that can be life threatening in certain people. A vaccine can help lower your chance of contracting pneumonia. While the pneumonia vaccine does not prevent all cases of pneumonia, it reduces the severity of the disease. 

That is especially important for older adults and if you have certain medical conditions that put you at greater risk for complications. 

Now is the time to talk to your doctor about your risks and if you need a vaccine to protect you against pneumonia. 

Niharika Juwarkar, MD, Internal Medicine with Firelands Physician Group, answers your most frequently asked questions about pneumonia and the risks. 

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a respiratory lung infection that is often mistaken for the flu. Your lungs become filled with fluid or pus that results in inflammation. Symptoms are very similar to the flu, but pneumonia can last for weeks and result in very serious complications.

While pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, most cases are due to a specific bacteria called streptococcus pneumoniae, more commonly known as pneumococcal pneumonia. This form can be treated with antibiotics. Your doctor can test to see what form of pneumonia you have. Treatment depends on the type of pneumonia you have and the severity of your symptoms. But, the best defense is vaccination.

Who is most at risk for pneumonia?

Anyone at any age can get pneumonia, but healthier, younger patients tend to recover more quickly. Adults over age 65, those with certain medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, emphysema, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), patients who have undergone chemotherapy, organ transplant or have HIV or AIDS, are all at greater risk. Additionally, smokers, heavy drinkers of alcohol, and patients recovering from a serious surgery or illness are also more prone to develop pneumonia. 

Who should get the pneumonia vaccine?

While there is no such thing as pneumonia season, it tends to be more prevalent in the winter. I follow the recommendations set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

First of all, there are two types of pneumococcal vaccines available in the United States. PCV13 (pneumococcal conjugate vaccine) protects against 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria. This vaccine is used to protect infants and young children, older children with certain medical conditions and for all adults over age 65. A single dose of PCV13 is recommended for adults over age 19 years who have a weakened immune system due to HIV infection, organ transplant, leukemia, lymphoma and kidney disease. 

PPSV23 (pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine), which helps protect you from  23 types of pneumococcal bacteria, is normally given to adults over age 65 and children over age two who may be at high risk for pneumonia. This form of the vaccine is often used in adults who smoke or have a respiratory disease like asthma.  

One shot usually protects you for life; however, you may need a booster based on changes in your medical condition. Talk to your doctor and see what is best for you. 

Who should not get a pneumonia vaccine?

While you may worry about this disease, not everyone needs a pneumonia vaccine. If you are healthy and between the ages of 18 and 64, you most likely do not need it. Also, some people may be allergic to the components in the vaccine. 

What are the risks of taking the pneumonia vaccine?

The pneumonia vaccine includes an extract from the actual pneumonia bacteria, but it is not strong enough to cause the illness. Some patients have experienced very mild side effects, including swelling, redness and discomfort at the vaccine site, low-grade fever, irritability, overall achiness and reduced appetite. However, these reactions are reported in less than one percent of patients who have had the injection. 

As you can see from Dr. Juwarkar’s answers, pneumonia is a serious condition that requires a diagnosis from a physician. If you fall within the age categories or have the conditions listed, it is important that you talk with your primary care provider (PCP) now. If you do not have a PCP, Firelands Physician Group has many compassionate and caring physicians who are looking forward to taking care of you, and your family. 

To discuss your overall health and see if you need a pneumonia vaccine, please call 419-557-5591 to make an appointment with Dr. Juwarkar, or one of our other physicians close to you.