Do you need a pneumonia vaccine?

March 15, 2013 By Daniel Kombert, M.D.

“Bundle up or you'll catch pneumonia!” You might have heard this growing up, but despite the saying, cold weather doesn't cause pneumonia. Pneumonia, a lung infection, is most often transmitted when someone comes in contact with or breathes in the air droplets of an infected person. Bacterial and viral pneumonia are the most common, but pneumonia can be caused by fungi and other factors.

Viral pneumonia is most often caused by the influenza virus, but can be caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), herpes or varicella viruses, as well as other types of viruses. Viral pneumonia tends to produce symptoms like fever, coughing and fatigue which gradually worsen over days.

Typical bacterial pneumonia symptoms, including high fever, severe chills, yellow or brown sputum and chest pain, usually come on quickly. Dozens of bacteria types can cause bacterial pneumonia, but the most common is the Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) bacteria.

People at greatest risk for bacterial pneumonia include those who are recovering from surgery, have respiratory diseases such as asthma or emphysema and/or have weakened immune systems. Young children and adults 65 and older are especially susceptible.

The good news: There are vaccines that can help prevent certain types of pneumonia. The annual flu vaccine can help you avoid an infection from the influenza virus. This will decrease your risk of getting a viral pneumonia along with other problems caused by the flu virus. Due to the possibility of different versions of the influenza virus circulating each year, experts recommend most people get a flu vaccination annually to protect against the new strains. Talk to your doctor about any medical conditions or other concerns that might prevent you from getting the flu shot.

For bacterial pneumonia, pneumococcal vaccine (Pneumovax, Prevnar) lowers your chances of getting pneumonia from Streptococcus pneumoniae. The most effective vaccines are pneumococcal conjugate (PCV13) for children and pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPSV23) for adults. These vaccines might not totally prevent pneumonia, but can lower your risk or reduce the severity of illness if you do get pneumonia.

People who should get the Pneumococcal vaccine are:
• Children aged birth through 18 can receive PCV13 as part of a series of childhood vaccinations starting as early as 2 months of age.
• All adults age 65 and older should receive a PPSV23 vaccine.
• Adults 19 to 64 who smoke or have asthma should receive PPSV23
• Anyone age 2 or older with a disease or infection that lowers the body's resistance to infection, such as HIV, lymphoma or leukemia should get the vaccine.

If you're not sure whether you should get a pneumonia vaccine, talk to your doctor. People who should get the Annual Influenza vaccine are: Anyone older than 6 months of age. Remember, you cannot get an infection from the vaccine!

Besides vaccines, frequent hand washing or use of a hand sanitizer is a great way to prevent transmission of viruses and bacteria. Avoiding crowds at the height of the cold and flu season and covering your mouth after sneezing or coughing are other ways to prevent transmission.

Daniel Kombert, M.D., is director of the Hospitalist Program at The Hospital of Central Connecticut. For information on physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone 800.321.6244.