The ME Association Pneumonia and the Pneumococcal vaccine – do you need this protection?

Dr Charles Shepherd, Hon. Medical Adviser, ME Association

A member asked:

“I have been offered the pneumococcal vaccine by my GP as I am over 65. I have had mild to moderate M.E. for about 10 years.  

“I understand that infections can sometimes trigger M.E. or cause a relapse of existing M.E. But I am also aware that some people do not react well to vaccinations.

“I also appreciate that this vaccine provides protection against an infection that can have serious consequences for the older person and those with health conditions that place them at increased risk.

“So, do you know of any people with M.E. who have had this vaccine?”

Dr Charles Shepherd replied:

Pneumococcal vaccination provides a high level of protection against pneumococcal infections – which can cause a serious and potentially fatal pneumonia and septicaemia (blood poisoning), as well as meningitis. A single dose provides lifelong protection.

Most normal healthy people do not have any significant problems with side effects from this vaccine. Minor side effects include a mild fever and soreness and/or swelling at the injection site. Serious side effects appear to be very rare.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is swelling (inflammation) of the tissue in one or both lungs. It’s usually caused by a bacterial infection. It can also be caused by a virus, such as coronavirus (e.g. COVID-19).

The symptoms of pneumonia can develop suddenly over 24 to 48 hours, or they may come on more slowly over several days. Common symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • a cough – which may be dry, or produce thick yellow, green, brown, or blood-stained mucus (phlegm),
  • difficulty breathing – your breathing may be rapid and shallow, and you may feel breathless, even when resting,
  • rapid heartbeat,
  • high temperature,
  • feeling generally unwell,
  • sweating and shivering,
  • loss of appetite,
  • chest pain – which gets worse when breathing or coughing.

Pneumonia can affect people of any age, but it’s more common, and can be more serious, in certain groups of people, such as the very young or the elderly. People in these groups are more likely to need hospital treatment if they develop pneumonia.

Although most cases of pneumonia are bacterial and are not passed on from one person to another, ensuring good standards of hygiene will help prevent germs spreading. People at high risk of pneumonia should be offered the pneumococcal vaccine and flu vaccine – these are often given at the same time.

Source: NHS Choices: Pneumonia

Septicaemia or Sepsis

Sepsis is a life-threatening reaction to an infection. It happens when your immune system overreacts to an infection and starts to damage your body’s own tissues and organs. You cannot catch sepsis from another person. Sepsis is sometimes called septicaemia or blood poisoning.

Sepsis needs treatment in hospital straight away because it can get worse quickly. GPs must make sure patients with suspected sepsis are started on antibiotics within an hour of being assessed, starting treatment in their surgery if the patient will not make it to hospital in time.

If sepsis is not treated early, it can turn into septic shock and cause your organs to fail. This is life threatening.

Most people make a full recovery from sepsis. But it can take time. You might continue to have physical and emotional symptoms. These can last for months, or even years, after you had sepsis. These long-term effects are sometimes called post-sepsis syndrome.

Source: NHS Choices: Sepsis

Pneumococcal Vaccine

The pneumococcal vaccine is now being offered to people over the age of 65 and those with other health conditions (e.g. heart and lung disease) that place them at increased risk from this infection.

If you have had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccination in the past, do let your doctor know as this may contra-indicate its use.

I know of a small number of people with M.E. who have received the pneumococcal vaccination and I have not received any reports of significant adverse reactions occurring to this vaccine so far. 

However, that is not a guarantee that you will not have any side-effects, or an exacerbation of your M.E. symptoms.

If there are good indications for having this protection (and a pneumococcal infection would probably cause a significant relapse of M.E.), this is something that you should seriously consider and discuss with your GP.

Please note that it is normally sensible to defer being vaccinated if you are currently having any significant flu-like symptoms (i.e. sore throats, tender glands, feeling feverish) in relation to your M.E.

The ME Association

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