DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m 70 years old. I already had a pneumonia vaccine, back when I was 65. At my checkup last week, my doctor said I need to get another one. Why?
I always like to hear that adults are staying up to date with their vaccinations, as you did when you received a dose of the PPSV23 (Pneumovax) vaccine at age 65. Pneumovax helps protect against pneumonia caused by one common type of bacteria, called pneumococcus.
Pneumonia caused by pneumococcus bacteria can make people very sick, very fast. I know: It happened to me.
Without treatment, the pneumonia can become severe. The bacteria can also spread into the bloodstream or can cause meningitis, a serious infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are advising adults age 65 and older to get a second vaccine to prevent bacterial pneumonia. The second vaccine, PCV13 (Prevnar 13), is expected to prevent many additional cases of pneumonia.
The PCV13 vaccine is not “new.” It has been included in childhood vaccinations for several years. But it is new for adults.
The CDC recommends a single dose of PCV13 for anyone who is older than 65. If you have the option, the CDC says it is best to get the PCV13 before the PPSV23. If you are getting the PCV13 first, wait a year between the two vaccines. If, as in your case, you have already received the PPSV23 vaccine, you can still get the PCV13 vaccine.
Vaccines are important for avoiding infection. But these vaccines protect only against specific bacteria. There are many other things you can, and should, do to reduce your risk of catching pneumonia caused by other bacteria and viruses. These measures will also protect you against a cold, the flu and many other infections.
The best way to protect yourself from infection is to wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Rub your hands together for a full 20 seconds. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Stay away from people you know are sick. If you are sick, stay home to avoid infecting others. At home, avoid kissing, hugging and sharing utensils with someone who is unwell.
When I caught pneumonia due to pneumococcus, I hadn’t received the vaccine — because I was not old enough. I was feeling great when I went to bed. When I got up the next morning, however, I felt very tired. When I looked in the mirror, I looked white as a ghost. I felt hot and had a high fever. I took myself to the emergency room and my blood pressure was very low: I was in shock.
Fortunately, prompt treatment turned me around and I was back in action a few days later. But I came close to dying. When it came time for me to get the vaccine, I surely did. I don’t want that to happen ever again.