How to Avoid “Catching” Pneumonia

“You’re going to catch pneumonia.” We’ve all heard the phrase – and maybe even had it directed at us. But, is it really that easy to “catch” pneumonia?

Technically, no, you cannot “catch” pneumonia. In reality, you catch the bacteria, viruses or fungi that can eventually cause pneumonia. The good news is many of these are often preventable with vaccines.

Before we get into the ways to prevent pneumonia, a brief word about what pneumonia really is, and who it impacts. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that creates fluid, and which can cause coughing, a fever and difficulty breathing. The infection can range from mild (like a cold) to more severe requiring immediate medical attention, and in some cases can be life threatening. Globally, pneumonia is the leading cause of death among young children. Each year, pneumonia kills nearly one million children below the age of five. In the United States alone, around one million people, mostly adults, seek acute care due to pneumonia and nearly 500,000 people die from the disease each year.

While pneumonia can infect anyone, children under the age of two and adults over the age of 65 are at the highest risk. Additionally, according to the Mayo Clinic, individuals with chronic conditions such as asthma or heart disease, those with weakened immune systems, and any person that smokes are also at a higher risk to get pneumonia.

To help prevent pneumonia, Dr. Jason Turowski, pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic, says getting vaccinated “is the most important thing you can do.” According to the CDC, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), measles, pertussis, varicella, influenza (flu) and pneumococcus can all cause pneumonia, and vaccines are available to prevent infection of these bacteria and viruses.

According to WHO, for children, Hib and Streptococcus pneumonia (pneumococcus) are the two most common causes of bacterial pneumonia. The CDC recommends the Hib vaccine for children under the age of 5, starting at two months of age, and typically requires either three or four doses depending on the vaccine used. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13), preventing pneumococcus disease, is recommended for infants and young children below the age of 5.

Pneumococcus is also the most common type of bacteria to cause pneumonia in adults, according to the National Institute of Health. Immunization schedules from the CDC call for all adults 65 years of age and older to receive PCV13. Adults above the age of 19 considered at higher risk due to a weakened immunity are also recommended to receive the vaccine. The CDC also suggests the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) for all adults above the age of 65, and adults above the age of 19 who smoke or have asthma.

For both children and adults, the flu vaccine is also highly recommended. Research conducted at the University of Michigan found that influenza infection boosts the likelihood of pneumonia 100-fold. Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) also found that patients with flu-associated pneumonia were less likely to have received the flu vaccination.

Although vaccines can’t prevent all forms of pneumonia, they certainly help lower the risk. Thus, just as our loved ones once yelled to get inside and cover up before we catch pneumonia, caregivers need to advocate that patients receive vaccines to avoid catching the germs that are to blame.