Understanding the Pneumonia Vaccine
Monday, October 08, 2012

Dr. Jacqueline Riedel

Last month, I encouraged you to consider getting the influenza vaccine to protect you and your loved ones from contracting the flu, a potentially deadly upper respiratory infection. As a follow-up, I would like to address a similarly important (and vaccine-preventable) illness: pneumococcal pneumonia.

Pneumococcal pneumonia is so named because it is caused by one of many strains of the bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia. This organism is the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in the U.S. Like many bacteria, S. pneumonia is widespread in our environment, and may even live on our skin. When the organism makes its way into our lungs, however, it may cause pneumonia. Symptoms of pneumonia can include cough, chills, chest pain, difficulty breathing and fatigue. The illness tends to be worse in very young children and in the elderly.

Because of potentially deadly consequences, all children and adults over age 65 should be vaccinated against pneumonia. However, people with certain medical conditions or habits should also seek vaccination. These include people ages 19 to 64 who:

  • Do not have a spleen, or have a poorly functioning spleen. The spleen serves many functions, including protection from pneumococcal infection. Persons with asplenia have either lost their spleen in surgery or due to an accident, or they suffer from a medical condition that prevents the spleen from functioning, such as sickle cell disease;
  • Have decreased immune system function. This can occur as the result of several factors, including HIV/AIDS, chronic kidney disease, leukemia or other malignancies, or a history of organ transplant;
  • Have healthy immune systems, but suffer from diseases that predispose them to infection. Persons in this group include those with chronic heart disease, COPD, asthma, diabetes mellitus, alcoholism, and chronic liver disease. Cigarette smokers in this age group should be vaccinated as well.

Children under the age of five receive a series of pneumonia vaccinations (Prevnar), which includes 13 of the bacterial strains most likely to cause illness.  People age two and older who are at high-risk for disease, and all those over age 65, receive a vaccine called Pneumovax, which offers immunity against 23 disease-causing strains of S. pneumonia. Anyone who receives the vaccine prior to age 65 will need to be re-vaccinated every five years. After age 65, the CDC recommends receiving one additional booster of the vaccine.

Reported vaccine side effects are mild; according to the CDC, about half of patients complain of injection site redness and pain. Children may experience fussiness or irritability, swelling at the injection site, and fever.

Many people are unaware of the need for vaccination based on their medical history. Please speak to your family physician or internist about whether pneumococcal vaccination is indicated for you. For more information about pneumonia or the vaccine, visit www.cdc.gov/vaccines and search for “pneumonia.”

Jacqueline Riedel, D.O. is a Family Medicine physician and a member of the Kennedy Health Alliance. She practices in West Deptford, NJ, and can be reached by calling 856-384-0210.