Everything You Need to Know About the Pneumococcal Vaccine

Pneumonia, which can be avoided with a simple vaccine, is the fifth leading cause of death in the Philippines. It claims the lives of almost 60,000 Filipinos annually. The best way to protect yourself from pneumonia is to get vaccinated. Although the pneumococcal vaccine may not prevent all cases, it significantly lowers your chances of getting sick. And if you do catch pneumonia, you will likely have a mild case. The vaccine is very effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death.

All adults over 65 should receive the pneumococcal vaccine.
An elderly patient is injected with the pneumococcal vaccine.

Who should get a pneumococcal vaccine?

People over 65. The elderly are especially vulnerable to pneumonia. As you age, your immune system ages too. Immune cells lose function, making seniors more prone to frequent and serious infections. To stay healthy, a pneumococcal jab is essential for seniors.

Children under 2 years of age. Only one pneumococcal vaccine is safe for children under two years of age–the PCV13 (Prevnar). This vaccine is recommended for infants and young children because they are at higher risk of serious infection from pneumonia.

Immunocompromised people. Many conditions can weaken the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to pneumonia. If you have diabetes, heart disease, asthma, HIV, or emphysema you may have trouble fighting off infection. This is also true for organ transplant recipients, chemotherapy patients, and other medical conditions. Speak to your doctor if you’re unsure whether you have a condition that affects your immunity.

People recovering from surgery or serious illness. Injury, surgery, and illness take a toll on your immune system. This makes your body less able to fend off other invaders, such as pneumonia. The pneumococcal vaccine can give your immune system a needed boost. If you were in intensive care or required a ventilator, this also makes you a candidate for vaccination.

Smokers and heavy drinkers. Lifestyle choices also make you vulnerable to pneumonia. Long-term smokers may have damage to the lining of the lungs, making it harder to filter out pneumococcal bacteria. Heavy drinkers are ten times more likely to catch pneumonia and four times more likely to die from infection compared to non-drinkers. Getting your jab significantly reduces the risk.

Who should not get it?

Not everyone needs a pneumonia vaccine. If you are between the ages of 18 and 64 and in good health, you probably don’t need to be vaccinated. You should also avoid vaccination if you are allergic to the pneumococcal vaccine. However, this is very rare. Less than 1% of people who receive the shot have an allergic reaction.

Is the pneumonia vaccine safe?

Yes, reactions to the pneumococcal vaccine are exceedingly rare, including allergic reactions. As with most vaccinations, the most common side effect is swelling and pain at the site of the injection. The pneumococcal vaccine cannot give you pneumonia. It uses only an extract of the bacteria that causes the disease. It does not cause illness, though occasionally people experience mild fever and fatigue as side effects.

Is home vaccination safe?

In-home vaccination service is safe when performed by a licensed provider. It also keeps susceptible populations, such as children and seniors, out of hospitals and clinics where they risk exposure to COVID and other illnesses.

Two Pneumonia Vaccines: Pneumovax and Prevnar

The CDC recommends two different pneumococcal vaccines: Pneumovax (PPSV23) and Prevnar (PCV13). Each vaccine protects against different types of bacteria. Pneumovax protects against 23 bacterial strains. It is recommended for everyone over 65, smokers aged 19-64, and people with certain medical conditions. Prevnar protects against 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria. It is recommended for children under 2 years old and people over 2 with certain health conditions.

A table displays who should get the Prevnar 13 and Pneumovax 23 vaccine.
Vulnerable populations who should receive the Prevnar 13 or Pneumovax 23 vaccine.

Some people should receive both vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends both Pneumovax and Prevnar for people at high-risk for pneumococcal disease. This includes older adults with comorbidities.

"Anyone who reaches the age of 65, and is in any way immunocompromised…. for example, if they have diabetes, heart disease or lung disease, or are a smoker — should get both vaccines,” said Dr. William Schaffner, Director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. He noted that this includes a large percentage of elderly adults. You can consult a doctor for guidance on whether you need one or both vaccines.

When to get the vaccine?

There is no pneumonia season. The disease can strike year round, however, it often develops from a severe case of the flu. Most adults will only need one round of pneumonia vaccination for their lifetime. If you need both vaccines, experts recommend you first receive a shot of the Prevnar vaccine, followed by Pneumovax a year or more later. The vaccination schedule for children follows:

A table displays the dosing schedule for pediatric use of pneumococcal vaccines.

How well do the pneumococcal vaccines work?

No vaccine is 100% effective. Rarely, people have breakthrough infections of pneumonia. But even in breakthrough cases, the vaccine offers significant protection against serious illness and death. Studies show that:

  • At least one shot of Prevnar protects 80% of babies and 75% of seniors from invasive pneumococcal disease.
  • At least one shot of Pneumovax protects 75% of seniors and 84% of diabetes patients from invasive pneumococcal disease.

Across all groups, the vaccines are about 60% - 70% effective in preventing invasive pneumonia caused by 36 different strains of bacteria. Getting vaccinated at the appropriate time can help you protect yourself and others from pneumonia infection.