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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Should Seniors Get the Pneumonia Vaccine?

If you are over the age of 65, your doctor may have suggested at your last well-check that you consider getting the new pneumonia vaccine. If you’re curious about the vaccine and your chances of getting pneumonia, don’t miss this quick guide:

What is Pneumonia?
First, a quick anatomy lesson. When you breathe, air travels into your mouth, down your trachea, and through your bronchioles to little air sacs in your lungs called alveoli (there’s roughly 600 million of them in there). From there, your body transports necessary oxygen into your bloodstream.

When a pathogen like a virus, fungus, or bacteria makes its way into your lungs, it can infect those little air sacs causing them to fill with fluid and pus and become inflamed. This is known as a pneumococcal infection, or pneumonia. Respiratory infections of this kind are particularly dangerous to certain groups of the population including children, seniors (especially those with dementia), and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

There are multiple types of pneumonia which can affect patients including community and hospital-acquired pneumonia. Community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) is “caught” outside of a hospital or other healthcare facility and develops when an airborne germ is inhaled and sets up shop in a person’s lungs or in some cases, when liquid or food goes “down the wrong pipe” into their lungs; this is known as aspiration pneumonia.

Hospital-acquired pneumonia has its own distinction because the bacteria which causes it is often more resistant to antibiotics and because it affects a more vulnerable population that is already being treated for some other illness at the time. Hospital patients can acquire it from other patients, from germs on instruments used in treatment (like intubation tubes and ventilators), and even from air circulated through their rooms. In fact, a 2014 report in the journal Virulence shared that pneumonia is associated with the highest rate of mortality in ICUs (intensive care units).

Hallmark symptoms of pneumonia in seniors over 65 include:

•    Cough (often produces phlegm)
•    Chest pain when coughing or breathing
•    Confusion or disorientation
•    Fever, chills, sweating
•    Shortness of breath
•    Fatigue
•    Vomiting, diarrhea, nausea
•    Body temperature lower than normal

Medical professionals can easily monitor vital signs and lung sounds with tools like a stethoscope, pulse oximeter, and blood pressure monitor. Pneumonia often additionally presents with irregular lung sounds (crackling, wheezing, bubbling) and may also be accompanied by rapid heart rate, changes in blood pressure, and muscle aches.

Seniors who suspect they have pneumonia should see a doctor right away as life-threatening complications can quickly arise including difficulty breathing, an infection that spreads to the bloodstream, dehydration, or an abscess or fluid buildup in the lungs. Complications like these often end in hospitalization and in some cases, even death.

Typically doctors will administer tests like imaging scans of the lungs, blood tests, measuring the oxygen saturation levels in your blood, and sputum tests. Depending on the type and severity of pneumonia, treatment can include antibiotics, antivirals, cough medicine, oxygen therapy, pain relievers, breathing treatments, and more.

How Do Vaccines Help?

Vaccines that target specific bacteria strains that can cause pneumonia have been licensed since 1977, with the most recent versions being approved by the FDA in 2000 and 2011. There are two different versions of pneumococcal vaccines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that seniors get - Prevnar 13® (pneumococcal conjugate vaccine or PCV13) and Pneumovax23® (pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine or PPSV23).

Prevnar 13® is received as a single dose and protects seniors against 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria that can cause infections like pneumonia and even ear infections. Studies show that this vaccine safeguards 45 out of 100 seniors over 65 from pneumococcal pneumonia.

Pneumovax23® defends seniors from 23 different types of pneumococcal bacteria that cause serious infections like pneumonia. Studies reveal that this vaccine can safeguard 50 to 85 out of 100 seniors over 65 against invasive pneumococcal disease. Depending on if you have a chronic medical condition, you may receive one or two additional boosters of this vaccine in addition to the initial dose.

The medical community also believes that other vaccines, like the seasonal influenza vaccine, can play a role in preventing pneumonia as pneumonia and other respiratory infections are a common complication in seniors who develop the flu.

What Else Should You Know?
In addition to age, various risk factors can increase your chances of developing pneumonia. These include smoking, chronic diseases like heart disease, asthma, and COPD, hospitalization, and having a weakened immune system (common in those who have had chemotherapy, organ transplants, viral infections, etc).

Experts recommend speaking with your doctor about your pneumonia risk, vaccine options, possible side effects from receiving vaccines, and a vaccine schedule based on your health status.

This is a guest blog entry.

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