Harvard Med: To Prevent Pneumonia if You’re Over 65 – Get Vaccinated



As cold & flu season approaches so does pneumonia season. That’s because the cold & flu make it harder to fight infection, especially for the elderly. In fact, says the Harvard Medical School, adults age 65 and older have a higher risk of death from pneumonia hospitalization than for any other reason.

But Harvard’s point isn’t to scare you – it’s to tell you of a way to avoid pneumonia in the first place: Get vaccinated.

There’s two vaccines that offer “sound protection” against pneumonia. They do so by building immunity against the different types of bacteria that cause it. One vaccine is Pneumovax, which protects against 23 common types of bacteria; the other is Prevnar, which protects against 13 types. If you’re 65 and older, Harvard says you should receive Prevnar first, followed by Pneumovax six months to one year later.

Vaccination thus prevents those dreaded flu-like symptom from appearing: fever, muscle aches, headache, fatigue, and cough. However, with pneumonia, the cough often produces yellow, green, or even bloody mucus. And you may also have trouble breathing and experience pain when taking a deep breath.

One more thing. Harvard warns us of people over 65 who are especially at risk: those that smoke, and those with a serious medical condition such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart disease.

The American Cancer Society adds a further wrinkle: by smoking tobacco, they say, you not only make yourself more vulnerable to each of these illnesses – and others – but when you get them they will be worse. This happens for a number of reasons, for instance:

  • Smoking damages (scars) the airways and small air sacs in your lungs.
  • The risk of COPD goes up the more you smoke and the longer you smoke.
  • It causes “Smoker’s cough”: Tobacco smoke has many chemicals and particles that irritate the airways and lungs. When a smoker inhales these substances, the body tries to get rid of them by making mucus and coughing. Over time the airways become swollen and the cough becomes chronic (long-lasting).
  • Smoking tobacco damages your heart and blood vessels, causes high blood pressure, and makes your blood more likely to clot.
  • Smoking can cause or worsen poor blood flow to the arms and legs. This is called peripheral vascular disease or PVD. It can cause pain in the legs when walking.
  • Smoking causes decreased immune system function, increased risk for cataracts (clouding of the lenses of the eyes), higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, increased risk for age-related macular degeneration, and an increased risk of peptic ulcers.
  • And then there’s cancer: Wherever smoke – including secondhand smoke – touches living cells, it does harm.

Both the Harvard and Cancer Society articles are worth reading in full (they use plain language). But if you don’t have time the short point is simple: pick up the vaccine … and put down the cigarette.


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