Pneumonia Vaccine Basics

By Tina M. St. John, MD. May 7th 2016

When it comes to disease-causing bacteria, Streptococcus pneumonia is a bad actor. Better known as pneumococcus, these bacteria remain a significant threat to people of all ages.

Several types of pneumococcus cause a variety of illnesses, including pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream and ear infections. Infants, young children, seniors and people with a weakened immune system are particularly vulnerable to these infections. Although sometimes called “pneumonia vaccines,” pneumococcal vaccines provide protection against the broad array of diseases caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, not just pneumonia.

Pneumococcal Vaccine Types and Uses

Two types of vaccines are available in the U.S. to prevent pneumococcal diseases. Both stimulate the immune system to make special proteins called antibodies to protect against specific, disease-causing types of pneumococcus. Neither vaccine contains any live pneumococcus bacteria; therefore, neither vaccine cannot cause a pneumococcal infection. The choice of which vaccine to use depends on a person’s age and medical conditions. People at high risk for pneumococcal diseases often receive both vaccines.

The pneumococcal vaccine names are long and tricky to remember, but the numbers in the acronyms make it easier to keep them straight.

Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPSV23): This vaccine contains proteins from the 23 types of pneumococcus that cause approximately 90 percent of human infections. PPSV23 is usually a single-dose vaccine, but a second dose is sometimes recommended.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the PPSV23 vaccine for:

  • All adults ages 65 and older;
  • Adults ages 19 through 64 who have asthma or smoke; and
  • Anyone ages 2 through 64 who has a medical condition that increases the risk for pneumococcal disease.

Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine (PCV13): This version of the vaccine contains proteins from 13 of the most common disease-causing types of pneumococcus. Bacterial proteins in the PCV13 vaccine are attached to a carrier, known as a conjugate, which helps stimulate the immune system to produce protective antibodies. The carrier in PCV13 makes it a good choice for infants and young children, as their immune systems are not yet fully developed and require stronger stimulation to produce adequate levels of protective antibodies. For the same reason, PCV13 works well for people with a weakened immune system. PCV13 is given in one to four doses, depending on age and medical circumstances.

CDC recommends the PCV13 vaccine for:

  • All infants, beginning at age 2 months;
  • Children ages 2 through 5 who were not immunized during infancy; and
  • Children older than 5 and adults with an increased risk for pneumococcal infections.

Why Get The Vaccine?

Pneumococcal diseases are potentially life-threatening. CDC reports that one out of 20 people who contract pneumococcal pneumonia die of the infection. Four out of 20 people die if the infection spreads to the bloodstream.

Among children younger than 5, pneumococcus is a leading cause of meningitis. Approximately one in 10 children who develop pneumococcal meningitis dies of the illness. Youngsters who survive may have permanent side effects, such as brain damage or hearing loss. Pneumococcus is also a common cause of ear infections in infants and young children. These infections are almost always preventable with the protection provided by one or both of the available vaccines.   

Possible Side Effects and Safety

The most common side effects of pneumococcal vaccines are redness, pain and/or swelling at the injection site. Other possible side effects include a low fever, muscle aches, lack of energy and headaches. Infants may experience a temporary decrease in appetite and be more fussy or sleepy than usual. These mild side effects typically disappear on their own in a few days. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pneumococcal vaccination for all children, concluding that it is both safe and effective for infants and older children.

Women who are at risk for pneumococcal disease and plan to become pregnant should ideally be immunized before the pregnancy. The decision to immunize against pneumococcus during pregnancy is made on a case-by-case basis, depending on individual circumstances.

As with any medication, a severe allergic reaction is a possibility with pneumococcal vaccines. However, this possibility is rare. Anyone who has had a severe or life-threatening reaction to a previous pneumococcal vaccine or ingredients in the medication should not get another dose. Any reaction other than mild side effects should be reported to the health care provider right way. Emergency medical care is needed if there is any difficulty breathing.

Next Steps

With two types of pneumococcal vaccines and an extensive list of recommendations for each one, the situation can be confusing — but don’t let that stop you from taking action.

  • Talk with your doctor if you are uncertain whether you’ve been immunized against pneumococcus or if you should be.
  • If your health care provider recommends a pneumococcal vaccine, don’t hesitate to ask questions about the potential risks and benefits.

For Caregivers

Infants, young children and seniors have an increased risk for serious, potentially life-threatening pneumococcal disease. You can help protect the youngsters and elders in your life by ensuring that they receive the recommended pneumococcal vaccinations.

  • Talk with your pediatrician or family doctor if you are unsure whether your children or grandchildren have been fully immunized against pneumococcus.
  • With elderly individuals, it may be helpful to suggest attending their next medical appointment with them. Office visits are sometimes handled at an uncomfortably fast pace for seniors. You being present to ask about your loved one’s pneumococcal vaccine status helps ensure the issue will be addressed.

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