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Should You Get the Pneumonia Vaccine?

New guidelines say those 65 and up need two shots to ward off this disease

It's the time of year for colds and other respiratory illnesses. Most are mild. But if you or your parent have a fever, cough, chest pain and trouble breathing, it could be pneumonia, a much more serious disease — especially for those over 65.

Pneumonia is a lung infection that can cause severe illness or death. About one in five people who get pneumonia outside of a healthcare setting need to be hospitalized. That's why it's important for all people 65 and older to get vaccinated against the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new recommendations that people 65 and up should get two shots, spaced six to 12 months apart.

Why Get the Shots?

About 1 million people are hospitalized with pneumonia in the U.S. each year and 50,000 people die of it. Most are adults.

(MORE: 9 Surprising Ways to Ward Off Colds and Flu)

A bacterium called pneumococcus is one of the most common causes of severe pneumonia. It can also cause meningitis and bacteremia, or blood stream infection. The latter two are usually very severe, causing hospitalization or even death.

The good news: The two pneumococcal vaccines can be very valuable for preventing severe disease. The shot given first is the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, also known by the brand name Prevnar13. The second shot is the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine, or Pneumovax.

Prevention through vaccination is important because some strains of pneumococcal disease have proven to be highly resistance to antibiotics, making them extremely difficult to treat.

Symptoms of Pneumonia

  • High fever
  • Shaking chills
  • A cough with phlegm that doesn't improve
  • Shortness of breath with normal activities
  • Chest pain when breathing or coughing
  • Feeling suddenly worse after a cold or the flu

Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Older adults and those with serious illnesses or weak immune systems may have milder symptoms. Older adults may show sudden changes in mental awareness.

Others at Risk for Pneumonia                 

With the exception of small children, most people under age 65 don't need the pneumonia vaccination. But if you or a parent has some serious health conditions, the shots are vital. They include:

  • Lymphoma, leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, chronic kidney disease, HIV or other conditions that compromise the immune system
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Spleen problems
  • Heart disease, lung disease (like asthma), diabetes, alcoholism or cirrhosis.
  • Smokers

(MORE: How Long Should You Get Health Screenings?)

Talk with your doctor to find out if you should get one or both shots. If you’ve had an allergic reaction to a vaccine in the past, discuss that, too, before getting another shot.

Don’t Forget Flu Shots

Other immunizations, such as the annual flu shot, prevent infection by the bacteria and viruses that cause pneumonia. Caregivers need to be particularly vigilant about getting a flu shot because of their close proximity to more vulnerable people.

(MORE: The Surprising Dangers of Hospital Stays)

Put Prevention First

Reduce your risk of becoming infected with pneumonia or infecting others by:

  • Washing your hands frequently, especially before preparing food, before eating and after using the bathroom
  • Regularly disinfecting surfaces that are touched often

Stephen L. Antczak is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and is the author of four books and more than 50 short stories.

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