The Pneumonia Vaccine You Might Need & How It Works

blue-gloved provider giving vaccine in someone's arm

You’ve heard of pneumonia, but what about pneumococcal pneumonia? While it might be hard to pronounce, prevention is easy – there’s a vaccine. Julia Jenkins, DO, UnityPoint Health explains how this pneumonia vaccine works and who needs to receive it.

How Do You Get Pneumococcal Disease?

Pneumococcal infection is caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae (Strep pneumo), and when this bacteria gets in the lungs, it’s called pneumococcal pneumonia. However, Strep pneumo bacteria can cause many more significant illnesses than just pneumonia, such as bacteremia (infection of the blood) or meningitis (infection of tissue around the brain).

“Strep pneumo is most often spread by respiratory droplets or close contact with an infected person,” Dr. Jenkins says. “When a person coughs or sneezes, small particles of saliva with bacteria in them are projected into the air. Those droplets are picked up by others through breathing or touching infected items. Pneumococcal pneumonia is certainly contagious.”

So, what’s the difference between pneumonia and pneumococcal pneumonia? Dr. Jenkins says it’s this certain bacteria.

“Several different things can cause pneumonia. Pneumonia can be classified into bacterial, viral, fungal or aspiration as the cause. Pneumococcal pneumonia specifically refers to a pneumonia caused by the Strep pneumo bacteria,” Dr. Jenkins says.

How Does the Pneumonia Vaccine Work?

Protection is essential, as about 900,000 Americans of all ages will get pneumococcal pneumonia each year, and about five to seven percent will die from it. With increasing age, the chance of dying from pneumococcal disease increases.

“Adults over age 65 need to get two vaccines, the pneumococcal 13 (PCV13) and the pneumovax 23 (PPSV23) one year apart. They won’t need to be revaccinated in their lifetime. There is no seasonality associated with pneumococcal vaccination either, so this vaccine is available any time of the year,” Dr. Jenkins says.

Dr. Jenkins recommends everyone 65 and older be vaccinated against pneumococcal disease. She also says adults between ages 19-64 should get vaccinated, if they fall into certain groups with an increased risk of serious pneumococcal infection, including:

  • Chronic lung disease, including asthma
  • Current smokers 
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic liver disease
  • Alcoholism
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Persons who have lost their spleen
  • Immunocompromising conditions
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Persons with cochlear implant or a cerebrospinal fluid leak

Pneumococcal Vaccine Side Effects

Adults who receive the pneumococcal vaccine will sometimes report pain or redness at the site of the injection. Dr. Jenkins says there can also be a low-grade fever, headache or muscle aches for a few days after the vaccine, but these side effects usually go away within 72 hours. If you’ve had a serious allergic reaction to other vaccines, you should discuss with your doctor if the pneumococcal vaccines are safe for you.

Pneumonia Vaccine for Babies

Children under 2 years old are also part of the group most at-risk for pneumococcal pneumonia. As a part of children’s regular vaccine schedule, they receive a series of shots to prevent pneumococcal disease.

“Children receive the pneumonia vaccine during well child visits at ages 2, 4 and 6 months old, and they also receive a booster between 12-15 months of age. However, children with certain medical conditions may need additional vaccination,” Dr. Jenkins says.

Protection as a baby is important, but it doesn’t protect individuals for life. Even if adults received the vaccine as a baby, they will still need to receive additional vaccination, if they have one of the high-risk factors above or once they turn 65 years old.

Pneumococcal Vaccine Price

Pneumococcal vaccines are covered by insurance, so Dr. Jenkins encourages having the conversation about when is the best time for you to receive yours.

Talk with your doctor to see if you need vaccination against pneumococcal disease. Vaccination is your best opportunity to prevent and protect yourself,” Dr. Jenkins says.

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