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The vaccine you may not know about that could save your life

Q: Why should I get the pneumococcal vaccine?

A: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 90 types of pneumococcal bacteria. Some of these infections are considered "invasive," which means germs are able to invade normally germ-free body parts.

Several pneumococcal illnesses include meningitis, pneumonia, lung infection, ear and sinus infections, and the blood stream infection bacteremia.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases reports that pneumococcal disease kills thousands each year, including 18,000 adults 65 years or older, in the United States.

Seniors are more susceptible to pneumonia because aging can interfere with the body's ability to remove bacteria from the lungs. Seniors often have other health conditions, such as diabetes, or undergo treatments that can suppress the immune system, such as chemotherapy or steroids.

The best way to prevent pneumococcal disease is to get vaccinated. There are currently two types of pneumococcal vaccines: pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13 or Prevnar13) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23 or Pneumovax).

PCV13 protects against 13 strains of pneumococcal bacteria and is recommended for all children younger than 5 years old, all adults 65 and older, and people 6 years or older with certain risk factors, such as sickle cell disease or other immunocompromising conditions.

PPSV23 protects against 23 strains of pneumococcal bacteria and is recommended for all adults who are 65 years or older and for people 2 through 64 years old who are at a high risk for pneumococcal disease.

Pneumococcal bacteria are spread from person to person by direct contact with respiratory secretions, such as saliva or mucus. You can carry the bacteria in your nose and throat and spread the bacteria without feeling sick.

Conditions that increase the risk of invasive pneumococcal disease among adults include:

  1. Decreased immune function from disease or drugs

  2. Chronic heart, lung, liver or renal disease

  3. Cigarette smoking

Similar to the flu shot, receiving the pneumococcal vaccine is a preventive measure to help protect yourself against getting sick. Talk to your doctor to make sure you are up to date on these and other recommended vaccines.

Jeff Olson, DO, is with Nazareth Hospital in the Mercy Health System.