Pneumonia: Tips for Prevention

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA on November 1, 2017Written by Corey Whelan on November 1, 2017

Overview

Pneumonia is a lung infection. It’s not contagious, but it’s often caused by upper respiratory tract infections in the nose and throat, which may be contagious.

Pneumonia can happen to anyone, at any age. Babies under age 2 and adults over age 65 are at higher risk. Other risk factors include:

  • living in a hospice or institutionalized setting
  • using a ventilator
  • frequent hospitalizations
  • a weakened immune system
  • a progressive lung disease, such as COPD
  • asthma
  • heart disease
  • smoking cigarettes

People at risk for aspiration pneumonia include those who:

  • overuse alcohol or recreational drugs
  • have medical issues affecting their gag reflex, such as a brain injury or trouble swallowing
  • are recovering from surgical procedures that required anesthesia

Aspiration pneumonia is a specific type of lung infection that is caused by accidentally inhaling saliva, food, fluid, or vomit into your lungs. It’s not contagious.

Read on to learn more about ways to protect yourself from pneumonia.

Causes

Pneumonia often occurs following an upper respiratory infection. Upper respiratory tract infections can result from colds or the flu. They’re caused by germs, such as viruses, fungi, and bacteria. Germs can be spread a variety of ways. These include:

  • through contact, such as shaking hands or kissing
  • through the air, by sneezing or coughing without covering your mouth or nose
  • through surfaces that are touched
  • in hospitals or healthcare facilities through contact with health care providers or equipment

Pneumonia vaccine

Getting the pneumonia vaccine reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, your risk of getting pneumonia. There are two types of pneumonia vaccines: the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13 or Prevnar 13) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23 or Pneumovax23).

The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine prevents against 13 kinds of bacteria that cause serious infections in children and adults. PCV13 is part of the standard vaccination protocol for babies and is administered by a pediatrician. In babies, it’s given as a three- or four-dose series, beginning when they’re 2 months old. The final dose is given to babies by 15 months.

In adults aged 65 and older, PCV13 is given as a one-time injection. Your doctor may recommend revaccination in 5 to 10 years. People of any age who have risk factors, such as a weakened immune system, should also get this vaccine.

Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine is a one-dose vaccine that protects against 23 kinds of bacteria. It’s not recommended for children. PPSV23 is recommended for adults over age 65 who’ve already received the PCV13 vaccine. This typically occurs around one year later.

People aged 19 to 64 who smoke or have conditions that increase their risk for pneumonia should also get this vaccine. People who receive PPSV23 at age 65 generally don’t require revaccination at a later date.

Warnings and side effects

Certain people should not get the pneumonia vaccine. They include:

  • people who are allergic to the vaccine or any ingredient in it
  • people who had an allergic reaction to PCV7, a former version of the pneumonia vaccine
  • women who are pregnant
  • people who have a severe cold, flu, or other illness

Both pneumonia vaccines may have some side effects. These may include:

  • redness or swelling at the injection site
  • muscle aches
  • fever
  • chills

Children should not get the pneumonia vaccine and the flu vaccine at the same time. This may increase their risk of having fever-related seizures.

Tips for prevention

There are things you can do instead of or in addition to the pneumonia vaccine. Healthy habits, which help to keep your immune system strong, may reduce your risk of getting pneumonia. Good hygiene also may help. Things you can do include:

  • Avoid smoking.
  • Wash your hands often in warm, soapy water.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands.
  • Avoid exposure to people who are ill whenever possible.
  • Get enough rest.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, fiber, and lean protein.

Keeping children and babies away from people who have colds or the flu may help reduce their risk. Also, make sure to keep little noses clean and dry, and teach your child to sneeze and cough into their elbow instead of their hand. This can help reduce the spread of germs to others.

If you already have a cold and are concerned that it might turn into pneumonia, talk to your doctor about proactive steps you can take. Other tips include:

  • Make sure to get enough rest while recovering from a cold or other illness.
  • Drink lots of fluid to help eliminate congestion.
  • Use a humidifier.
  • Take supplements, such as vitamin C and zinc, to help bolster your immune system.

Tips for avoiding postoperative pneumonia (pneumonia after surgery) include:

  • deep breathing and coughing exercises, which your doctor or nurse will walk you through
  • keeping your hands clean
  • keeping your head elevated
  • oral hygiene, which includes an antiseptic such as chlorhexidine
  • sitting as much as possible, and walking as soon as you are able

Tips for recovery

If you have pneumonia caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics for you to take. You may also need breathing treatments or oxygen depending on your symptoms. Your doctor will decide based on your symptoms.

You may also benefit from taking cough medicine if your cough is interfering with your ability to rest. However, coughing is important for helping your body eliminate phlegm from the lungs.

Resting and drinking lots of fluids can help you get better more quickly.

Takeaway

Pneumonia is a potentially serious complication of upper respiratory infection spreading to the lungs. It can be caused by a variety of germs, including viruses and bacteria. Babies under 2 and adults over 65 are recommended to get the pneumonia vaccine. Individuals of any age who are at increased risk should also get the vaccine. Healthy habits and good hygiene may reduce your risk of getting pneumonia.

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