How to Keep Patients From “Catching” Pneumonia


“You’re going to catch pneumonia.” We’ve all heard the phrase – and maybe even had it directed at us. But, providers know it is not that easy to “catch” pneumonia. In reality, people catch the bacteria, viruses or fungi that can eventually cause pneumonia. With this often-misunderstood illness, providers have an opportunity to educate patients about the severity of pneumonia and help them determine the immunization recommendations that are right for them.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that creates fluid, which can cause coughing, fever and difficulty breathing. The infection can range from a mild cold to more severe, sometimes life-threatening, symptoms that require immediate medical attention. In the United States alone, around 670,000 people seek acute care due to pneumonia and about 50,000 people die from the disease each year.

While pneumonia can infect anyone, children under the age of five and adults over the age of 65 are at the highest risk, according to the CDC. Additionally, individuals with chronic conditions such as asthma or heart disease, those with weakened immune systems, and smokers are also more susceptible to pneumonia. 

Fortunately, vaccines are available to prevent infection of many types of pneumococcal bacteria and viruses. The CDC recommends the PCV13 and PPSV23 pneumococcal vaccines, and the 2017 recommended immunization schedules for both children and adults provide more recommendation details by age and health condition.  

While the CDC reports that childhood immunization rates for pneumonia are at 84%, rates among seniors and high risk adults are at just 64% and 24% respectively—well below the Healthy People 2020 goals. With a few years before the 2020 milestone, providers can play an important role in educating and encouraging patients towards pneumococcal vaccination. 

One strategy is to couple pneumococcal vaccination with influenza vaccination. For both children and adults, the flu vaccine is highly recommended, and can help stave off pneumococcal bacteria. 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. 

As we move into flu season this year, providers may consider leveraging the success of flu vaccines to help protect adult patients from pneumonia. Though pneumococcal vaccinations do not require a yearly dosage and pneumonia is a year-round disease, the prevention-focused season is still a great checkpoint. 

Additionally, providers can ask patients, particularly elderly or those in high-risk populations, about their pneumococcal vaccination status and help walk them through the recommendations geared towards their specific needs. Regardless of the method, it is going to take a proactive, concerted effort from providers to help increase pneumococcal vaccination rates and keep our populations safe from pneumonia and other pneumococcal infections.