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For many Canadians, the arrival of winter signals a season of the extra vigilance needed when it comes to taking precautions to protect their health. Fears of catching a cold or getting the flu, a simple cough or sniffle can send us running post haste to the pharmacy to stock up on vitamin C or sign up for the flu shot to do whatever’s necessary to help boost our immune system.

While many older Canadians diligently get the flu shot every year, fewer people know of the availability and importance of getting the pneumonia vaccine. Pneumonia is a potentially life-threatening lung infection that’s diagnosed when there’s fluid in the lungs. The most common cause is either a bacterial or a viral infection. Though it can be caused by both, the most prevalent form is caused by bacteria.

Coughing and sneezing can spread the germs that cause pneumonia. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Neil Moralee.

Sadly, this lack of awareness about pneumonia and the vaccine that can help prevent it can be deadly. “To give you an idea of how serious an infection pneumonia is, in the olden days, before we had antibiotics, there was a 100 percent fatality rate in the over 65 crowd,” says Dr. Dawn Bowdish, associate professor at McMaster University and Canada research chair in aging and immunity. “If it’s diagnosed on time, then there’s a good chance that a course of antibiotics will prevent it from becoming deadly, although there are lots of long-term consequences in older adults who have pneumonia that are a little bit harder to deal with. There’s lots of data saying that older adults who have had pneumonia will see previous conditions get worse for things like cardiovascular disease, dementia and metabolic disorders. Having pneumonia in mid-to-late life can often precede a period of ill health when these other conditions are popping up or getting worse.”

Dr. Bowdish explains that you generally contract pneumonia in one of two ways. It can happen when some of the bacteria that live normally in the nose or mouth migrates into the lungs. It’s also commonly transmitted from one ill person to another. “Often its transmitted from grandchildren to grandparents. Kids are germ carriers and they can often spread those germs to the people they love. There’s also a phenomenon called post-influenza pneumonia, which is when you get the flu first and that leaves you susceptible to the bacteria that can give you pneumonia.”

Chris Haromy, a respiratory therapist for The Canadian Lung Association explains that, in general, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, anyone can get pneumonia, however, people who smoke, have weakened immune systems or a chronic medical condition are especially susceptible to the disease. Young children and older adults are also at a higher risk because the immune system is less developed in kids and becomes less effective as we get older.

“As we age, our immune systems do not work as well at fighting infections.”

“As we age, our immune systems do not work as well at fighting infections,” says Haromy. “Older folks are also more likely to have chronic medical conditions and to be taking regular medications. These factors not only increase the risk of getting pneumonia, but also the risk of dying if they do get the infection. Pneumonia can be life-threatening. Influenza and pneumonia combine to be the eighth leading cause of death in Canada, causing 6,235 deaths in 2016.”

Clearly, it’s essential for people to do whatever they can to prevent contracting the disease. That’s where the pneumonia vaccine comes in. The vaccine can reduce the likelihood and frequency of how often an individual contracts the disease. It also appears to reduce the more serious consequences of getting bacterial pneumonia, like when the bacteria gets into your blood or into your cerebral spinal fluid (known as invasive pneumococcal disease, which can be fatal).

“For a long time, we had just one vaccine in Canada, and it was recommended that people over 65 get it,” says Dr. Bowdish. “Now there’s two variations of the same vaccine, so they’re a little bit different and the recommendation is that older adults get both of them for better protection. The caveat is that both the vaccines only target one kind of bacteria called streptococcus pneumonia. Though the vaccines don’t prevent all forms of pneumonia, streptococcus is the form of pneumonia older adults get the most frequently.”

As a weakened immune system often follows a bout of the flu, both Dr. Bowdish and Haromy emphasize that it’s vital to get the flu shot in conjunction with the pneumonia vaccine. If you’re over 65, a smoker, have a pre-existing medical condition or have had bad bouts of pneumonia in the past, speak to your healthcare provider about how to best protect yourself.