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Pneumonia Prevention: It's Worth a Shot

Pneumococcal (pronounced new-mo-KOK-al) disease is an infection caused by bacteria. These bacteria can attack different parts of the body. When they invade the lungs, they cause the most common kind of bacterial pneumonia. When the same bacteria enter the blood, they cause an infection called bacteremia (bak-ter-E-me-ah). In the brain, they cause meningitis. Pneumococcal pneumonia is a serious illness that kills thousands of older people in the United States each year.

Can Pneumonia Be Prevented?

For some causes of pneumonia, yes. The pneumococcal vaccine is safe, it works, and one shot lasts most people up to 10 years. People who get the vaccine are protected against almost all of the bacteria that cause pneumococcal pneumonia and other pneumococcal diseases as well. The shot, which is covered by Medicare, can be a lifesaver.

Some experts say it may be best to get the shot before age 65--anytime after age 50--since the younger you are, the better the results. They also say people should have this shot even if they have had pneumonia before. There are many different kinds of pneumonia, and having one kind does not protect against the others. The vaccine, however, does protect against 88 percent of the pneumococcal bacteria that cause pneumonia. It does not guarantee that you will never get pneumonia. It does not protect against viral pneumonia. Most people need to get the shot only once. However some older people may need a booster; check with your doctor to find out if this is necessary.

Who Should Get the Vaccine?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, everyone age 65 and older should get it the pneumonia vaccine. Some younger people should get it also.

Ask a doctor for the vaccine if you:

  • Are age 65 or older.
  • Have a chronic illness, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes.
  • Have a weak immune system. (This can be caused by certain kidney diseases, some cancers, HIV infections organ transplant medicines, and other disease.)

Are There Side Effects?

Some people have mild side effects from the shot, but these usually are minor and last only a very short time. In studies, about half of the people getting the vaccine had mild side effects--swelling and soreness at the spot where the shot was given, usually on the arm.

A few people (less than 1 percent) had fever and muscle pain as well as more serious swelling and pain on the arm. The pneumonia shot cannot cause pneumonia because it is not made from the bacteria itself, but from a bacterial component that is not infectious. The same is true of the flu shot; it cannot cause flu. In fact, people can get the pneumonia vaccine and a flu shot at the same time.

About the Disease and the Vaccine

There are two main kinds of pneumonia--viral pneumonia and bacterial pneumonia. Bacterial pneumonia is more serious. One kind of bacteria causes pneumococcal pneumonia. In older people, this type of pneumonia is a common cause of hospitalization and death.

About 20 to 30 percent of people over age 65 who have pneumococcal pneumonia develop bacteremia. At least 20 percent of those with bacteremia die from it, even though they get antibiotics.

People age 65 and older are at high risk. They are two to three time more likely than people in general to get pneumococcal infections.

A recent, large study by the National Institutes of Health suggests that the vaccine prevents most cases of pneumococcal pneumonia.

The U.S. Public Health Service, the National Coalition for Adult Immunization, and the American Lung Association now recommend that all people age 65 and older get this vaccine.

Key Facts

Everyone age 65 and older should get the pneumonia vaccine. Anyone with chronic disease or a weak immune system should also get the vaccine. Most people need to get it only once. Most people have mild or no side effects. It is covered by Medicare.

Resources

More information about adult immunizations is available from the following groups.

National Institute on Aging
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
1-800-222-2225
1-800-222-4225 (TTY)

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
31 Center Drive MSC 2520
Building 31, Room 7A50
Bethesda, MD 20892-2520
(301) 496-5717

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Immunization Program
1600 Clifton Road NE
Atlanta, GA 30333
1-800-232-2522

American Lung Association
1740 Broadway
New York, NY 10019-4374
1-800-LUNG-USA
(1-800-586-4872)

National Coalition for Adult Immunization
Suite 750
4733 Bethesda Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814

Information provided by NIH.