Pneumococcal Vaccines for Seniors

What is a pneumococcal vaccine?

A pneumococcal vaccine is an injection that can prevent pneumococcal disease. A pneumococcal disease is any illness that is caused by pneumococcal bacteria, including pneumonia. In fact, the most common cause of pneumonia is pneumococcal bacteria. This type of bacteria can also cause ear infections, sinus infections, and meningitis.

Adults age 65 or older are amongst the highest risk groups for getting pneumococcal disease.

To prevent pneumococcal disease, there are two types of pneumococcal vaccines: the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) and the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13).

What is PPSV23?

PPSV23 protects against 23 types of bacteria that cause pneumococcal disease. It is recommended for all adults 65 and older. Anyone with certain medical conditions who is 2 years or older may also need the vaccine.

Most people only need one dose of PPSV23. But even if you’ve already had one dose before turning 65, you should get another dose of PPSV23 after you turn 65. Your doctor may also recommend that you get a dose of another type of pneumococcal vaccine, PCV13.

What is PCV13?

PCV13 is a vaccine that protects against 13 different types of bacteria that cause pneumococcal disease. Infants and young children usually get 4 doses of PCV13: at 12-15 months old and then at ages 2, 4, and 6. It is also recommended that anyone 2 years or older receive PCV13 if they have certain medical conditions and they haven’t already had the vaccine.

Your family physician may decide to give you PCV13 if you are aged 65 and older. He or she will explain that, if you don’t have an immunocompromising condition, a cerebrospinal fluid leak, or a cochlear implant, you may not have to have the vaccine. However, because it helps prevent you from getting pneumonia, it is recommended that you choose to have it anyway. You and your family physician will make this decision together.

Path to improved health

Pneumococcal vaccines can protect you against getting pneumonia, which is contagious and spreads from close, person-to-person contact. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs and can lead to many symptoms, including:

  • cough
  • fever
  • difficulty breathing
  • chills
  • chest pains
  • bringing up mucus when you cough

For seniors, pneumonia can be very serious and life-threatening. This is especially true if you have a chronic condition, such as diabetes or COPD. Pneumonia can also develop after you’ve had a case of the flu or a respiratory virus such as COVID-19. It is extremely important to stay current on flu shots each year in addition to your pneumococcal vaccines.

While PPSV23 and PCV13 do not protect against all types of pneumonia, they can make it less likely that you will experience severe — and possibly life-threatening — complications from the illness.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that seniors who have not had either pneumococcal vaccine should get a dose of PCV13 first, and then a dose of PPSV23 6-12 months later. The vaccines cannot be given at the same time. If you have recently had a dose of PPSV23, your doctor will wait at least one year to give you PCV13.

Things to consider

It is important to talk with your family physician before getting any vaccine. Tell your doctor if you have had an allergic reaction to vaccines in the past or if you have any severe allergies. You should also tell him or her if you are feeling sick. People with minor illnesses, such as a cold, can still be vaccinated. But if you are moderately or severely ill, your doctor may want you to wait until you feel better before getting a vaccine.

It is possible to have a reaction to a vaccine. If you experience any of the following symptoms after receiving either vaccine, make sure to let your doctor know.

  • redness, swelling, or pain at the injection site
  • loss of appetite
  • fever
  • loss of energy
  • headache
  • chills
  • irritability

If you see signs of a severe allergic reaction after you leave your doctor’s office, call 911 and go to the hospital immediately.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • When should I make an appointment to get each type of pneumococcal vaccine?
  • Should I still get the vaccines if I’ve recently had pneumonia?
  • Should I wait to turn 65 before I get each dose of pneumococcal vaccines?
  • If I have a negative reaction to one type of pneumococcal vaccine, am I likely to have that same reaction to the other?

Funding was provided for these pneumococcal resources through an unrestricted grant from Pfizer Independent Grant for Learning and Change (IGLC).