Oprah Winfrey recently faced severe pneumonia that landed her in the emergency room. At the insistence of her lung specialist, Winfrey canceled all her plans for a month for the first time in her career, the media mogul said.
Oprah was cleared to return to her everyday activities by her physician on Sunday, September 22, and now she’s urging her viewers to get their flu shots and pneumonia vaccinations.
"Don't play with it, and get your flu shots and get your pneumonia shots. It's nothing to play with. It takes people out," Oprah exclaimed on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Oprah doesn’t have to tell us twice. To better understand pneumonia’s impact and how to stay safe from it this season, we spoke with Bassel Ramadan, MD, FCCP, a board-certified and fellowship-trained pulmonologist who specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine at AdventHealth Medical Group.
What Is Pneumonia?
Nearly 1 million Americans are hospitalized each year from pneumonia, with 50,000 dying from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But with a little preparation, you can learn more about this illness and take action to protect your health and avoid getting pneumonia.
“Pneumonia is an infection of the lung tissues that causes severe illness,” explains Dr. Ramadan. The two most common types of pneumonia are viral and bacterial, and bacterial pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics. Pneumonia symptoms can include coughing, fever and difficulty breathing — which are all symptoms that can get serious fast, as Oprah learned.
Causes of Pneumonia
The causes of pneumonia vary among age groups. In infants and young children, pneumonia is usually caused by viruses like respiratory syncytial virus — commonly called RSV, metapneumovirus or influenza. Children and adults may have walking pneumonia, caused by mycoplasma bacteria, which causes respiratory infections, explains Dr. Ramadan.
Oprah’s Pneumonia Experience
When Oprah recently returned from overseas, she thought she had a cold but ended up in the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia.
Oprah took antibiotics for a week to no avail before being referred to a lung specialist who clarified the severity of her illness. “He goes, 'You must cancel everything. You cannot fly for a month.' And then he had 18 vials of blood drawn. And so I thought, 'Ooh, this must be very serious,'" Oprah told DeGeneres.
The lung specialist prescribed an inhaler and specific antibiotics, which he made sure Oprah was taking every day. After a week, Oprah recovered, to the joy of the specialist and her fans everywhere.
Now that she’s on the mend, Oprah is advising everyone to take prevention into their own hands by getting their pneumonia and flu shots.
Are You at Risk of Pneumonia?
Oprah turned 65 this year, so she’ll need to take extra care to avoid serious health conditions like pneumonia. “Adults over the age of 65 and children younger than five are more likely to get pneumonia,” says Dr. Ramadan.
People who have a higher-than-average risk of pneumonia include:
- People with serious health conditions
- Senior citizens
- Unvaccinated children and adults
“However, anyone with a suppressed immune system has an increased risk of contracting pneumonia,” Dr. Ramadan explains.
The Two Vaccines You Need to Prevent Pneumonia
Take it from Oprah: Don’t wait to get your pneumonia or flu shots. To stay safe from pneumonia, it’s worth your time — and your well-being — to stay up to date on these immunizations.
The Pneumonia Vaccine
Typically, children receive the pneumonia vaccine as part of their childhood immunizations.
The pneumococcal vaccine, or PCV13, is recommended by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics as part of a routine vaccine series starting at two months of age, explains Dr. Ramadan.
There are four vaccines total for maximum protection against the disease, and all are normally received within the first year of life, when children face the highest risk of infection. Another vaccine, PPSV23, offers further protection against different strains of pneumonia. “This vaccine is for children over age two who have high-risk conditions like sickle cell disease, HIV, chronic renal disease, or immunodeficiency,” Dr. Ramadan says.
Children with these conditions should receive both vaccines for protection against infection. Adults over age 65 should also receive both PPSV23 and PCV13, because immunity to pneumonia wanes over time.
The Flu Shot
If there’s a pneumonia vaccine, why do you need a flu shot, too? Oprah assumed she had a cold, but cold symptoms can be difficult to tell apart from flu symptoms. More importantly, getting the flu raises your risk of pneumonia.
“Pneumonia is one of the most serious complications of the flu. Getting your flu shot is important to prevent both illnesses,” says Dr. Ramadan.
Unfortunately, some people are skeptical of vaccinations. “It’s not worthwhile to forgo important immunizations like the flu or pneumonia vaccines,” affirms Dr. Ramadan.
"These vaccines are very safe. The most common side effects are pain at the injection site and a mild fever for one to three days after the vaccination, but that’s it."
The best time to get the flu shot is at the beginning of autumn — now — before flu season sets in. Late September and early October is the ideal timeframe to get your shot and make sure your family members get theirs, too.
Feel Empowered to Take Pneumonia Prevention Into Your Hands
Next year, Oprah is planning to launch a nationwide tour to motivate you to take care of yourself — a call to action that AdventHealth echoes.
At AdventHealth, we’re dedicated to helping you not only take care of yourself but feel whole every day and stay healthy your entire life. Whether you or a family member needs the pneumonia or flu vaccine, or you’re looking for a compassionate physician in your area, we’re here to help.
Take it from Oprah: Don’t wait to get your pneumonia or flu shots. Find a primary care doctor in your neighborhood today to get the pneumonia or flu vaccine for yourself or a family member.