I was compensated by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases through an unrestricted educational grant from Merck & Co., Inc. to write about pneumococcal disease but all opinions are my own.
It was during a game of dodge ball when I was 12 that my life changed forever.
Along with my classmates, I was running around on a basketball court, trying to avoid the slap of those horrid red rubber balls being lobbed at me from across the room. The room reverberated with the sound of rubber hitting wood and the occasional, “Ooof” as a ball connected with a student’s midsection (or face. Ouch.)
Though I’d played the game countless times before, that day was different. I didn’t feel right but I kept playing anyway, despite the fact that my lungs felt tight, like a vice was being applied to my chest. It felt like I had a hand pressing down on my sternum and, in an instant, I couldn’t take a deep breath. When the wheezing started, I panicked.
I was having what would turn out to be, for me, the first of hundreds asthma attacks.
And it was terrifying.
After a trip to the school nurse and a visit to our family doctor, I was diagnosed with asthma and I have since spent the better part of thirty years being treated for the complications that come with having an obstructive airway disease.
There is no cure for asthma and I am considered “chronically ill” because my life is affected daily by my inability to breathe without the aid of inhalers and medications.
I have spent my life overcoming the daily struggles of asthma. I take medications and steroids. I use rescue inhalers and daily preventative inhalers. I spend hours in doctor’s offices and emergency departments receiving nebulizer treatments. I have lung spirometry tests done regularly and, some years, I’ve struggled to blow out birthday candles because my lungs won’t cooperate. Every day activities like climbing stairs and walking to the grocery store from the parking lot can be exhausting.
I’ve had to work closely with my doctors to be able to pursue my passion of running marathons safely because exercise induced asthma makes it harder to get to the starting line, much less the finish line.
And, thanks to my asthma issues, I’ve had pneumococcal pneumonia more times than I can count.
For those of you who have not had the pleasure of dealing with pneumococcal pneumonia, the experience can only be described as having an elephant decide to sit on your chest for weeks while you try desperately to find the strength to lift your head off the couch. During some of my more complicated bouts of pneumonia, I’ve been out of commission for weeks as I’ve recovered.
And I’m not alone.
In fact, it is estimated that about one million US adults get pneumococcal pneumonia each year, as many as 400,000 hospitalizations from pneumococcal pneumonia occur annually in the US, and about 5-7% of those who are hospitalized from it will die- which translates to more than 200,000 people. The death rate is even higher in those age 65 years and older.
Yes, you read that correctly: pneumococcal pneumonia is deadly.
Pneumococcal disease is a leading cause of serious illness throughout the world. A common type of bacteria, pneumococcus, which can attack different parts of the body, causes pneumococcal disease. Illnesses caused by pneumococcus include pneumonia, meningitis, middle ear and sinus infections, and a condition called sepsis, an infection of the bloodstream. Sounds awesome, right?
Pneumococcal disease is no joke. Trust me.
Because I’m so attuned to my lungs and their poor function, I know almost immediately when my body is exhibiting the signs of pneumococcal pneumonia.
In adults, symptoms of pneumonia include sudden onset of illness characterized by shaking chills, fever, shortness of breath or rapid breathing, chest pain that is worsened by breathing deeply and a productive cough.
In short: pneumonia makes you feel like a cold, sweaty, lightheaded mess and it sucks.
About five years ago, in my late 30s and during yet another visit to my family doctor for pneumonia treatment, we had a long talk. Well, he talked. I breathed deeply on a nebulizer treatment.
My doctor gently told me I should consider being vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia. He explained that in the US, there are safe and effective vaccines that can help prevent pneumococcal disease. Vaccines are recommended for routine use in children, adults age 65 years and older, and adults age 19 to 64 years with certain risk conditions like asthma or diabetes.
I was a perfect candidate, given my health history, and, as I sat on the examination table, I was relieved to hear that there was safe, effective way to minimize the misery of pneumonia again.
And, since pneumococcal vaccines can be given at any time during the year, I took off the mask, rolled up my sleeve and said, “Let’s do this.” Oh, and I asked for my flu vaccine, too, because, it turns out, you can get both at the same time. Total bonus.
Since receiving the pneumococcal vaccine five years ago, I have not had pneumonia. Which means I haven’t had to take excessive sick days, I haven’t had to miss my kids’ school events and I haven’t had to spend weeks on the couch choking down antibiotics and endless bowls of chicken broth while an elephant takes up residence on my chest. #Winning
My life may have changed during that dodge ball game when I was twelve but the pneumococcal vaccine was a game changer, too.
And I am forever grateful that my physician recognized my symptoms and helped me find a way to live more freely with asthma.
November 12 is World Pneumonia Dayand because you know I love a good hashtag, I’m asking you to share the importance of prevention of pneumonia through vaccination. Share this post, using #PreventPneumo to tell your friends and family that pneumococcal pneumonia can affect people of all ages and that vaccination can go a long way in improving the quality of life, perhaps even yours.
Of course, my experiences with pneumococcal pneumonia might not be the same as yours because the symptoms of pneumococcal disease vary depending on the illness caused by the bacteria. That’s why you shouldn’t just take my word for it. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for your treatment plan.
So, the next time you are at the doctor ask about pneumococcal vaccines. You won’t be sorry, I promise.
And, don’t be shy: talk to those in your lives who are 65+ about the importance of getting vaccinated. Encourage them to get the vaccine at the same time they are getting their flu vaccine. You could be saving a life and that makes you a hero.
Which is even better than winning at dodge ball.
To learn more about pneumonia across the lifespan (and, let’s face it: to make me look good in front of my generous sponsors), please “Like” NFID on Facebook, follow NFID on Twitter@NFIDvaccines, and on Instagramas @nfid_vaccines.
For more questions about pneumococcal disease, please visit: http://www.nfid.org/pneumococcal