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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 finally cleared to return to her everyday activities by her physician, and she has even urged her viewers to get their flu shots and pneumonia vaccinations. But should you?
To better understand the facts about pneumonia and how to stay safe from it this season, we spoke with Sausan Campbell, MD, internal medicine physician at AdventHealth Hendersonville.
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).
“Pneumonia is a serious infection of the lungs that can be caused by bacteria or viruses,” explains Dr. Campbell. “It can also have another component of aspiration or be atypical.”
She adds, “The most common type of pneumonia is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is naturally colonized in the sinuses and lungs in most children and adults. It’s usually transferred to adults by children and only becomes dangerous when it becomes infectious.”
So is the case when you get the flu or the common cold, which suppresses your immune system’s natural abilities to fight off the bacteria or virus that may cause pneumonia.
“Viral pneumonia is most common in the cold and flu season (October through March), when influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), adenovirus and human rhinovirus (the common cold) are more prevalent,” advises Dr. Campbell.
She adds, “Rhinovirus is the number one reason for hospitalization of pneumonia with the second being flu and third being strep pneumonia.”
What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
Whether it’s viral or bacterial, typical pneumonia symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Sputum production
However, atypical pneumonias can present different symptoms, Dr. Campbell clarifies.
In fact, she accounts a recent incident in North Carolina where around 200 people that attended the State Fair were sickened by a type of bacteria (Legionella) that causes an atypical pneumonia-type illness called Legionnaires’ disease.
Legionella is only contracted by breathing in (or inhaling) the bacteria, and it causes symptoms similar to typical pneumonia in addition to nausea, vomiting and diarrhea on first onset.
What Are the Symptoms of Pneumonia?
"Pneumonia is diagnosed by examining a patient’s symptoms and taking a sputum culture,” says Dr. Campbell.
The sputum culture will determine what is causing the pneumonia (bacterial or viral) and will then inform the treatment.
“Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotics,” Dr. Campbell explains.
Depending on the severity, additional medications such as breathing treatments or oxygen therapy may be recommended.
“It’s important to note that viral illnesses like cold and flu can still lead to bacterial pneumonia. If your cold symptoms are not resolved within a week — especially if you fall in the high-risk category for pneumonia — it’s important to see your doctor,” Dr. Campbell advises.
Are You at Risk of Pneumonia?
“Adults over the age of 65 and infants age two and younger are at a greater risk of getting pneumonia,” says Dr. Campbell.
People who have a higher-than-average risk of pneumonia include:
- Infants age two and under
- People with chronic or serious conditions
- Those who are immunocompromised
- Those age 65 or older
- Unvaccinated children and adults
- People who smoke
If any of these risks apply to you, it’s important to speak to your primary care or internal medicine doctor about how you can help prevent pneumonia. According to Dr. Campbell, “Our main lines of protection from pneumonia are the pneumonia vaccines.”
What to Know About Pneumonia Vaccines
The Two Pneumonia Vaccines
“The pneumonia vaccines are not recommended for the average healthy adult, but in higher-risk populations (those age 65 and older and age two and under) they are proven to reduce the incidence of pneumonia.” says Dr. Campbell.
“The pneumonia vaccines can protect you from up to 23 bacteria that cause pneumonia, but in reality, there are more than 100 strains of pneumonia bacteria. The vaccines protect against the most dangerous ones that can lead to significant illness and even death. The vaccine can also reduce the invasiveness of pneumonia and reduce the severity of lung tissue damage and inflammation.”
By getting your pneumonia vaccine, you’re protecting other people, too.
The benefit is called herd immunity. If the highest risk populations (especially children) are more protected and experience less pneumonia, the broader population is more protected by being less exposed to the disease.
Dr. Campbell describes, “There are two pneumonia vaccines: Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (Prevnar 13®) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (Pneumovax23®).
Prevnar 13 is part of a child’s regular immunization schedule as a serious of four total vaccinations between age two months and 15 months. For those over 65 or those with high-risk health conditions, it’s recommended to receive Prevnar 13 and then Pneumovax23 after 12 months.”
“Prevnar 13 is a newer vaccine that is conjugated with the diphtheria bacteria, which provokes the immune system to develop greater antibody production and therefore immune protection against 13 of the most dangerous strains of bacterial pneumonia,” she adds.
Pneumonia Vaccine Side Effects
“The pneumonia vaccines are not made with live active bacteria or viruses; they will not trigger you to have illness,” states Dr. Campbell.
They will, however, trigger your immune system, which may bring a few symptoms that people often mistake as being illness within one to two weeks of getting the vaccine.
These side effects can be:
- Swelling at the injection site
- Mild headache
More extreme side effects from vaccines are very rare.
For those in our rural communities, access to preventive care can be challenging, but it’s very important to speak with your doctor about your prevention plan and any recommended vaccines that may be a part of that.
Because vaccines are often staggered apart —the flu vaccine is often given weeks apart from the pneumonia vaccine — being proactive at the start of the cold and flu season offers the most protection.
The Flu Shot
If there’s a pneumonia vaccine, why do you need a flu shot, too? Well, since getting the flu raises your risk of pneumonia, preventing the flu can significantly decrease your pneumonia risk as well.
“The flu can be the classic pathway to pneumonia because influenza suppresses your immunity and creates an environment where pneumonia can develop. It can be a very serious complication of the flu, so it’s recommended that everyone six months and older get their flu shot,” says Dr. Campbell.
The best time to get the flu shot is at the beginning of October — now — before flu season ramps up in full swing.
Feel Empowered to Take Pneumonia Prevention Into Your Hands
We’re dedicated to helping you feel whole every day and stay healthy your entire life. If you’d like to talk to one of our experts about your comprehensive prevention plan this cold and flu season, our internal medicine and primary care doctors are here to support you.