Pneumonia vaccine: Oprah got it. Do you need it?

It's recommended for young children, seniors and people with other health issues

A senior man looks at the camera as he gets his pneumonia vaccine from a smiling nurse.

When celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg remind us to take action, many of us are more likely to listen. Now, they’re talking about the pneumonia vaccine.

Both women have recently shared their serious health scares. Winfrey was on the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and Goldberg shared her story on “The View.”

Take our quiz: How much do you know about the pneumonia vaccine?

Key facts about pneumonia

  • Pneumonia is an infection of one or both of the lungs caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
  • Anyone can get it. But those at highest risk include children younger than age 2, adults 65 and older, people who smoke, and people with certain health conditions.
  • The most common symptom is a cough that produces green, yellow, or bloody mucus. Other symptoms include fever, shaking chills, shortness of breath, low energy, and extreme tiredness.
  • Pneumonia can often be diagnosed with a health history and physical exam. Tests used to look at the lungs, blood tests, and tests done on the sputum you cough up may also be used.
  • Most people with pneumonia respond well to treatment, but pneumonia can cause serious lung and infection problems. It can even be deadly.

Learn more: Emergency vs urgent care

FAQs about pneumonia

Can pneumonia be prevented?

Check with your health care provider about getting the pneumonia vaccine. The flu is a common cause of pneumonia, so getting a flu shot every year can help prevent both the flu and pneumonia.

There are also two pneumonia vaccines. They will protect you from a common form of bacterial pneumonia.

Children younger than age 5 and adults ages 65 and older should get a pneumonia vaccine.

The pneumococcal shot is also recommended for all children and adults who are at greater risk for pneumococcal disease because of other health conditions.

What causes pneumonia?

With more than 30 different causes, they’re grouped by type:

  • Bacterial pneumonia. Caused by various bacteria, the most common is Streptococcus pneumoniae. It often occurs when the body is weakened from illness, poor nutrition, older age or impaired immunity. This weakness allows the bacteria to work its way into the lungs. Bacterial pneumonia can affect all ages. But you are at greater risk if you abuse alcohol, smoke, are weak, have just had surgery, have a respiratory disease or viral infection, or have a weakened immune system.
  • Viral pneumonia. This type is caused by different viruses, including the flu. It is responsible for about one-third of all cases. You may be more likely to get bacterial pneumonia if you have viral pneumonia.
  • Mycoplasma pneumonia. Because it has somewhat different symptoms and physical signs, this type is an atypical pneumonia. It is caused by the bacteria Mycoplasma pneumoniae. It generally causes a mild, widespread pneumonia that affects all age groups.
  • Other pneumonias. There are other less common pneumonias that may be caused by other infections including fungi.
What are the symptoms?

Bacterial pneumonia symptoms include:

  • Bluish color to lips and fingernails
  • Confused mental state or delirium, especially in older people
  • Cough that produces green, yellow, or bloody mucus
  • Fever
  • Heavy sweating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low energy and extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid pulse
  • Shaking chills
  • Sharp or stabbing chest pain that’s worse with deep breathing or coughing
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse with activity
Early symptoms of viral pneumonia are the same as those of bacterial pneumonia, but they may be followed by:
  • Headache
  • Increasing shortness of breath
  • Muscle pain
  • Weakness
  • Worsening of the cough
Mycoplasma pneumonia has somewhat different symptoms, including a severe cough that may produce mucus.
How is pneumonia diagnosed?

Diagnosis is often based on your recent health history such as surgery, a cold or travel exposures. Your health care provider will also note the extent of the illness. Based on these factors, your provider may diagnose pneumonia simply on a thorough history and physical exam.

Other tests may be used for verification:

  • Chest X-ray. This takes pictures of internal tissues, bones and organs, including the lungs.
    Blood tests. This may be used to see if infection is present and if it has spread to the bloodstream. Arterial blood gas testing checks the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream.
  • Sputum culture. The material coughed from the lungs into the mouth can indicate infection.
  • Pulse oximetry. An oximeter measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. A small sensor is taped or clipped onto a finger. When the machine is on, a small red light can be seen in the sensor. The test is painless.
  • Chest CT scan. This imaging procedure uses X-rays and computer technology to make sharp, detailed horizontal images (often called slices) of the body.
  • Bronchoscopy. A direct exam of the main airways of the lungs (bronchi), this test uses a flexible tube (bronchoscope). It helps to check and diagnose lung problems, assess blockages, and take samples of tissue or fluid for testing.
  • Pleural fluid culture. This test, takes a fluid sample from the space between the lungs and chest wall. A long, thin needle is put through the skin between the ribs. Fluid is pulled into a syringe attached to the needle. Lab tests determine which bacteria is causing the pneumonia.
What are possible complications of pneumonia?

Most people with pneumonia respond well to treatment. But pneumonia can be very serious and even deadly. You are more likely to have complications if you are an older adult, a very young child, have a weakened immune system, or have a serious health problem such as diabetes or cirrhosis. Complications may include:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This is a severe form of respiratory failure.
  • Lung abscesses. These pockets of pus form inside or around the lung.
  • Respiratory failure. This requires the use of a breathing machine or ventilator.
  • Sepsis. This is when the infection gets into the blood. It may lead to organ failure.
How is pneumonia treated?

Treatment depends on the type you have. Most of the time, pneumonia is treated at home but severe cases may require hospitalization. Antibiotics are used for bacterial pneumonia and may speed recovery from mycoplasma pneumonia and some special cases. Most viral pneumonias don’t require specific treatment. They often get better on their own.

Other treatment may include eating well, increasing fluid intake, getting rest, oxygen therapy, pain medicine, fever control, and maybe cough-relief medicine if cough is severe.

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Posted In Family Medicine, Immunizations, Internal Medicine