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Just having COPD by itself is hard enough, so you don't want to get other diseases along with it. How can you prevent influenza, pneumonia, and pertussis? Vaccines are your best shot.

Vaccines have long played a role in saving lives, but many people still think of them as a preventative health effort that's primarily for children. Adults may need shots as well, however — especially those who are more vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases than others. If you suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, that includes you. 

Why COPD patients should be worried about infections

It will come as no surprise to anyone with COPD that this lung disease makes you more vulnerable to all sorts of lung infections — pneumonia, the flu, and tuberculosis (TB) among them. These can in turn lead to staphylococcal infections. Not only do lung infections cause their own, often potentially fatal, symptoms, they also worsen the symptoms of COPD, leaving you:

  • More out of breath than usual
  • Coughing severely
  • With extreme tiredness
Any respiratory infection can additionally lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia develops when viruses, bacteria, and even fungi gather in your lungs and start to build up. When this happens, the air sacs in your lungs fill up with liquid and pus, which makes it even harder to breathe. Some pneumonia symptoms are pain in your chest and coughing repeatedly, which feels a bit different to the COPD-related cough you are used to.

COPD and pneumonia can form a deadly duo. Pneumonia can cause permanent damage to your lung tissue. The most dangerous complication is respiratory failure. Acute respiratory failure is actually is one of the most life-threatening complications a COPD patient can fall victim to after developing pneumonia. Because so many COPD patients develop pneumonia after they catch the flu, avoiding the flu is one of the most important things you can do for your health. To give yourself the best shot at staying healthy, get a shot — your annual flu vaccine!

The benefits of getting vaccinated as a COPD patient

The immune system makes antibodies when it detects infections. They locate the germs which caused the infection and then kill them. When you get better, a few of the antibodies stat in your body. Vaccines will have either a dead or weakened version of the virus they're meant to protect you against. When a vaccine is injected into your body, your immune system will start to make antibodies to fight the virus. Then, if vaccinated people are exposed to a certain disease, their body will have already made the antibodies, so it's able to kill the germs before they develop symptoms.

While different vaccines will protect you against different diseases, all of which can be serious, a few vaccines will specifically help prevent infections that will make your COPD worse by causing acute exacerbations. Any respiratory infection falls into this category, but there are vaccines for three of them:

  • Influenza — the flu vaccine, which comes in different types
  • Pertussis (whooping cough) — this vaccine, Tdap, additionally protects you against tetanus and diphtheria
  • Some kinds of pneumonia — a pneumococcal vaccine

COPD patients older than 60 should also get the Zoster vaccine, which goes a long way toward keeping you safe from shingles.

What do COPD patients need to know about the flu vaccine?

The flu is especially dangerous for COPD patients, who need to be admitted to hospital in greater numbers than the general population when they catch influenza, because it can cause:

  • Acute COPD exacerbations
  • Pneumonia
  • Death
You can greatly reduce your odds of winding up with any of these undesirable consequences by getting a flu shot. The flu shot is safe for people with COPD — it won't cause flare-ups or exacerbations — and it's the quickest, easiest, and most reliable way to protect yourself. Do remember to get a new flu vaccine at the start of each annual flu season, because different strains are relevant each year and the shot is constantly redesigned to match the circulating flu viruses. 

The flu shot may come with some minor side effects, like pain at the injection site, some swelling, redness, and maybe even a bit of a fever, some muscle aches, or a headache. These symptoms don't mean you got the flu from the vaccine, as that is not possible. They also typically subside within a few days. 

What COPD patients need to know about the pneumonia vaccine

Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) can cause several serious diseases:

  • Meningitis — an inflammation of the membranes that protect your brain and spinal cord.
  • Pneumonia — a lung infection which affects the air sacks in your lungs.
  • Sepsis — a life-threatening condition which causes your own immune system to attack you.  

This bacterium actually naturally lives right at the back of your throat and nose quite often, and it doesn't always lead to infection. When you have COPD, you are more vulnerable to this kind of colonization. People with COPD have a higher risk of getting pneumonia and other complications from such a bacterial colony than other people. 

If you have COPD, you should keep a close eye out for these symptoms associated with pneumonia:

  • You keep shaking and have chills
  • You have more chest pain than usual
  • You have body aches as well as headaches
  • You are having difficulties speaking because of low oxygen levels
  • You have a severe fever
  • Your mucus is thicker and is colored yellow, green, or even looks a bit bloody

COPD and pneumonia do not make a good combo. Together, they can cause severe complications, and possibly even irreversible damage to the lungs and other crucial organs like the brain, heart, and kidneys. 

You can get two different kinds of pneumonia vaccines — Pneumovax-23 and Prevnar-13. The dose you need varies, so you should talk to your physician about which vaccine you should get. The majority of people only need to get one dose of a pneumococcal vaccine. This can vary; if you have particular conditions — immune system problems and kidney disease — you might need to get a booster vaccine every five years. 

A pneumococcal vaccine is injected into the upper arm, in a very quick and easy procedure. You can get your flu shot on the same day.

Don't be worried about the side effects, as they generally only last a couple of days and aren't that bad — pretty much the same story as with a flu shot:

  • Swelling and redness around the injection site
  • Pain around where you got injected
  • Muscle pain and fever — this, however, is pretty rare

What you should know about the Tdap vaccine

Whooping cough, medically called pertussis, causes an extremely severe cough. If you have COPD, you do not want to get this disease, as it can cause serious complications like encephalopathy, pneumonia, pulmonary hypertension, and seizures. Some more rare complications are broken ribs from intense coughing and even broken blood vessels.

Getting whooping cough puts people with COPD at risk of experiencing acute exacerbations. Being vaccinated against pertussis — a serious and potentially life-threatening infection — is important for everyone, but people with chronic lung disease have an added reason to do everything they can to avoid it.

Tdap (Tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis) is a vaccine that doesn't just prevent pertussis but also tetanus and diphtheria. It offers a lower "dose" of active ingredients compared to DtaP, the vaccine approved for children, and is the vaccine you should be receiving as an adult.

You only need to get the Tdap vaccine once to prevent tetanus, whooping cough, and diphtheria, and receiving the vaccine also means you won't be able to spread pertussis to other people, which is especially important for young infants who cannot yet get the shot. After receiving Tdap, you should get booster shots every 10 years.

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