Pneumococcal Immunization: What Seniors and Caregivers Should Know

Pneumococcal disease kills thousands of seniors each year and leaves many more with poor health and disability. Yet according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), only half of all seniors have received the vaccine that could prevent this serious infection.

Senior woman receives immunization

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. A poll in the December 2015 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter showed that 70 percent of our readers got a flu shot last year. This is great news! Yet many older adults miss out on a newer immunization that can prevent the serious complications of pneumococcal disease, which for some people—including older adults—can be deadly.

Here is information from health experts to share with older loved ones:

Pneumococcal disease is a serious illness.

Many people are unfamiliar with pneumococcal disease, or they think it only affects small children. But the NFID reports that each year, more than 18,000 seniors die from the complications of this infection. Caused by the streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, it can spread to the lungs, brain, spinal cord and bloodstream, leading to hearing loss, seizures, vision loss, paralysis, loss of limbs and death. Seniors are more likely to become ill and they also are at a higher risk of these serious complications. The NFID reports that "in its worst form, pneumococcal disease kills one in every four to five people over the age of 65 who gets it."

Protecting against pneumococcal disease

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), pneumococcal disease is spread by contact with people who carry the bacteria in their throat. Most pneumococcal infections are mild, with symptoms such as fever, chills and a cough—and a person also can spread the bacteria even though they have no symptoms. The best way seniors can protect themselves is to be immunized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines for pneumococcal disease vaccines in 2013 and 2014, so seniors should discuss the vaccine at their next doctor visit.

CDC recommendations for the pneumococcal vaccine

Seniors should get a flu shot every year, but this isn't necessary with the pneumococcal vaccine. Depending on a person's age, medical condition and previous immunizations, their healthcare provider may recommend that they receive one or two types of pneumococcal vaccine, in a certain timetable. The two vaccines are:

PCV13 (pneumococcal conjugate vaccine), which targets 13 strains of pneumococcus bacteria, protecting against infection of the lungs (pneumonia), brain and spinal cord (meningitis) and bloodstream (bacteremia). PCV13 is recommended for adults 65 or older, as well as adults with certain health conditions. PCV13 is not recommended for anyone who has had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine or an earlier vaccine called Prevnar, or to vaccines for diphtheria, such as the DTaP.

PPSV23 (pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine) protects against 23 strains of pneumococcus bacteria and helps prevent illnesses such as meningitis and bacteremia. PPSV23 is recommended for adults age 65 or older and for people with certain health conditions. PPSV23 is not recommended for anyone who has had a severe allergy to any component of the vaccine.

A two-step process

If a senior's physician recommends that they receive both vaccines, they'll need to make more than one appointment. The CDC advises, "When both vaccines are recommended, you should receive a dose of PCV13 first, followed by a dose of PPSV23 at another visit. Talk with your healthcare professional to find out when you should come back for the second vaccine."

While the two pneumococcal vaccines should be given at different times, the CDC says it's fine to get one of the shots at the same time as the flu shot. Pneumococcal disease can in fact be a complication of influenza, so getting them together is a "smart choice," says the NFID.

The pneumococcal vaccines are available from doctors' offices, public health clinics and pharmacies. Medicare Part B covers 100 percent of the cost of both vaccines so long as they are administered at least one year apart; most private health insurance policies also cover the vaccines. Check with your provider to see if there will be any cost to you and for a list of in-network providers.

Immunize for yourself and for others.

The CDC says that side effects from the vaccines, including arm soreness and swelling, usually are minor and do not affect daily activities. And remember: Getting your recommended pneumococcal vaccines not only protects you, but also babies and vulnerable adults you might come into contact with. Also, reports the NIAID, immunizing against pneumococcal disease helps slow the overuse of antibiotics that leads to a dangerous increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains.

For More Information

Learn more about the pneumococcal vaccine for seniors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about the pneumococcal vaccines that are recommended for you.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.