Internal Medicine

I get a flu vaccine every year. Why do I also need a pneumonia vaccine?

Pneumonia can be a complication of the flu, so getting a flu shot will help with prevention but, depending on your age and medical history, you may also need to get a periodic vaccine to keep you safe from pneumonia.

Pneumonia is a serious and potentially deadly disease. A century ago, it was one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Today, antibiotics and vaccines help to control this disease, but the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), still estimates that nearly 60,000 Americans die every year from pneumonia.

When people first start to develop pneumonia, they often think they just have a “bad chest cold.” In reality, that cough and fever are the early signs of an infection that is attacking and causing inflammation in the lungs.

Along with a cough and fever, other symptoms include chills, chest pain and shortness of breath. An individual with pneumonia may also experience headaches, muscle aches and nausea. Because these symptoms are similar to several other common ailments, it’s not unusual for many individuals to delay seeking medical attention.

Although pneumonia can result from the presence of other types of microorganisms, it’s usually caused by a viruses or bacteria, with bacterial pneumonia the more dangerous of the two. You can pick up these organisms without realizing it by coming in contact with the microscopic droplets released by the sneeze or cough of an infected individual. Surprisingly, the pneumonia virus and bacteria can be present in your body with no ill effects. But if they make it past your body’s defenses and into your lungs, pneumonia will begin to develop.

Viral pneumonia will usually heal with rest and medications to control symptoms. Antibiotics are generally effective against bacterial pneumonia, but some antibiotic resistant strains of the disease are emerging. The pneumonia vaccine protects against most types of bacterial pneumonia and is intended for those individuals who are most at risk.

Current guidelines recommend a pediatric version of the pneumonia vaccine for all children younger than two years and for children younger than five years who have certain chronic medical conditions, such as immune system disorders or sickle cell disease. The pneumonia vaccine for adults is recommended for everyone older than 65 years, and for younger adults who have conditions, such as HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease or certain types of cancer. Unlike the flu vaccine, the pneumonia vaccine does not have to be repeated every year. For most individuals, a pneumonia vaccine will provide protection from the disease for at least five years.

When you get your flu shot this year, remember to ask your physician if you also need a pneumonia vaccine. If you start to develop symptoms that could be pneumonia, don’t hesitate. Contact your physician. Early diagnosis is the most effective treatment for pneumonia.

Originally Published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 09/08

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