Quick: Name the most frequently treated infectious disease in the United States. If you guessed flu, you’d be wrong. It’s actually pneumonia, which sends over 400,000 people to the emergency room each year and claims the lives of 50,000.
Flu and pneumonia share the same season, with most cases of both illnesses reported in the late fall and winter. Another similarity? Pneumonia tends to be much more serious in children and older adults, with people over the age of 65 accounting for the majority of cases that require hospitalization. That’s because older adults are both more likely to get pneumonia and to develop complications associated with the infection.
But what is pneumonia, exactly? Simply put, it’s an inflammation of a person’s lungs. Unlike the flu, which is always caused by a virus, pneumonia can be triggered by viruses, bacteria and even some types of fungus.
Each of these culprits affects a person in roughly the same way. They cause the air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, to fill up with fluid. The result is often a cough, fever, chills and, in more severe cases, trouble breathing. Even worse, because pneumonia can develop rapidly and spread to other parts of the body, it often exacerbates existing conditions like heart disease and diabetes, putting people with chronic conditions at greater risk from pneumonia.
For example, a recent study showed that diabetics who have high glucose levels are more likely to die from pneumonia than people with normal blood sugar levels. Another study showed people over the age of 65 who are hospitalized due to pneumonia are four times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke or to die of heart disease in the month following their hospitalization.
So, what can people do to reduce their risk of catching pneumonia? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two different types of pneumonia vaccines for adults 65 years and older. The first is called pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13). The CDC recommends a person get their PCV13 first, and then get the second vaccine, called the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV), a year later.
Most people who get each of these vaccines after the age of 65 won’t need another dose. The exception is people who have a condition that weakens their immune system. Doctors recommend they get a second dose of the vaccines five years after they receive their first dose.
Of course, it’s important to remember that not all cases of pneumonia are caused by the agents kept in check by the vaccines. Even people who are vaccinated should still take common-sense precautions that can offer protection against all causes of pneumonia, like washing your hands regularly, using a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as kitchen counters and bathroom sinks.
But perhaps the best thing you can do to guard against the most serious complications of pneumonia is to protect your overall health. Smokers who make the decision to quit are less likely to get the more serious forms of the disease. People who suffer from other respiratory illnesses, diabetes or heart disease should work with their doctor to get their condition under control. And everyone should aim to get plenty of sleep, ideally seven to eight hours a night.
By taking the right steps now, you can increase the odds of avoiding the brunt of both flu season and pneumonia season this winter.
Plans are insured through UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or one of its affiliated companies. For Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plans: A Medicare Advantage organization with a Medicare contract and a Medicare-approved Part D sponsor. Enrollment in these plans depends on the plan’s contract renewal with Medicare.