The low-down on pneumonia vaccines 

Published 8:07 am Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Contributing writer 

In the past few years, significant changes have been made to the recommendations for pneumonia vaccines for adults in the United States. Despite the abundance of information available today on the internet, television and social media, at times it has seemed very confusing to patients who are hoping to protect themselves from pneumonia.

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Your health care provider is your best resource for information and recommendations regarding your need for pneumonia vaccines. However, an understanding of pneumonia and the vaccines given to prevent it can help you make informed decisions with your health care provider.

Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation of the air sacs in one or both lungs. The air sacs can fill with fluid or pus, causing cough with sputum, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing. Pneumonia can range in severity from mild to life-threatening. It is most serious for infants and young children, people over the age of 65, and people with chronic health problems or weakened immune systems.

A variety of organisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi, can cause pneumonia. The most common bacteria causing pneumonia among older adults in the U.S. is streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus). These bacteria can be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets that are produced during coughing or sneezing. Once in the air, these droplets can be inhaled by another person (if they are in close proximity to the ill person) or they may land on surfaces such as table tops or be spread to door knobs or other surfaces from contaminated hands.

Because pneumococcus can cause pneumonia as well as other severe illnesses including bacteremia (infection in the blood) and meningitis, vaccines have been developed in an attempt to prevent illness and spread of the disease. In the last few years there have been significant updates to the pneumonia vaccine recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that have led to many questions for patients and health care providers.

There are currently two types of pneumonia vaccines in the United States, PCV13 (Prevnar) and PPSV23 (Pneumovax 23). PCV13 became available in 2010 and replaced an earlier version called Prevnar 7. This vaccine is administered to infants and children at various ages to protect them from pneumococcal illness. In August 2014, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended the use of PCV13 for adults.This vaccine helps protect people from 13 of the most severe types of bacteria that cause pneumonia.

PPSV23 has been recommended for adults since 1983. It protects against 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria. Twelve of these types are also found in the PCV13 vaccine. The other 11 types are only found in this vaccine. While neither of these vaccines can prevent every type of pneumonia, together they can protect against more than 30 of the most common, severe types of pneumococcal bacteria.

The CDC provides specific guidelines regarding both pneumonia vaccines, who should receive each vaccine, at what ages the vaccines are given and the appropriate waiting period between each vaccine. In general, both vaccines should be given to people over age 65 unless they were given at younger ages. In addition, people between the ages of 19 and 64 may need one or both vaccines if they:

  • Have weakened immune systems (including people receiving chemotherapy, people who have had organ transplants and people with HIV or AIDS).
  • Are smokers.
  • Have chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, emphysema, asthma or COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).
  • Are heavy drinkers (heavy alcohol use can weaken the immune system).

Unlike the flu vaccine, which is usually given every year in the fall, the pneumonia vaccines can be given at any time of year and are given only once or twice in a lifetime based on a patient’s particular needs. Your health care provider will determine your specific vaccine needs including any need for a booster dose.

Either pneumonia vaccine can be given at the same time as the flu vaccine as long as each vaccine is given in a different arm. However, the PCV13 and PPSV23 vaccines should not be given together but are generally given at least one year apart for most people.

In the same way you cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine, you cannot get pneumonia from either of the pneumonia vaccines. You may still become ill with other illnesses such as “colds”, bronchitis or sinus infections or you may get pneumonia caused by a virus, fungus or bacteria not included in the pneumonia vaccines. But the vaccine itself cannot cause illness. Minor reactions to any vaccine may include injection site redness, pain or swelling, low grade fever, mild headache or fatigue.

Because pneumonia vaccines are given at pharmacies, walk-in clinics, health departments and your health care provider’s office, it can be difficult to keep up with which vaccines are needed. It is always a good idea to request detailed information regarding the specific vaccine given and the date it was given. This information should be given to your primary care provider to become part of your permanent health record.

Although vaccines can’t prevent every case of illness or pneumonia, they are one of the most effective ways to lower the chances of becoming ill. Talk to your health care professional about the pneumonia vaccines and any other vaccines you might need.

Debbie Edelen, APRN, is an advanced practice provider at North Garrard Family Medical Center, a service of Ephraim McDowell Health.