According to Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology at NYU, humans come into contact with around 60,000 germs every day. However, only about one to two percent of these are potentially harmful. Our body also has innate and adaptive immunity which helps to protect us from these dangerous bacteria. Innate immunity is the defense system that’s in place when we’re born, and adaptive immunity is our body’s defense which develops over time as we’re exposed to more and more bacteria.
With the advent of the novel coronavirus, people have been much more conscious about their exposure to bacteria and viruses. The World Health Organization (WHO) has put forth a list of best practices for avoiding exposure to COVID-19 such as social distancing practices, mask-wearing, and other hygiene measures. And at the end of last year, we saw the first COVID-19 vaccine being tested on high-risk patients.
Despite the urgency of the COVID-19 vaccine, many people still have doubts about getting vaccinated due to the perceived risks. Older adults with chronic illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other respiratory diseases are proven to be at the highest risk of both contracting and experiencing severe reactions to the virus, yet many of these people choose not to get the vaccine.
In this post, we’re going to go over everything you need to know about getting vaccinated as a COPD patient, why it’s important, and settle any doubts or fears that you may have about the process.
What is a Vaccine?
Aside from safe hygiene practices, vaccines are the best tool that we have to fight bacterial and viral infections. Vaccinations are made from the same germs that cause the disease, but they are either weakened or killed so they don’t actually make you sick. What this does is causes your immune system to produce antibodies that can be used to fight off the disease if you come into contact with it. In other words, you’re developing immunity to the disease without actually contracting it.
Vaccines are not a new concept by any means, but the practice of vaccinology has evolved over time. According to healthaffairs.org, the first successful vaccine is credited to Edward Jenner, an English physician. In 1796, he administered a vaccine to a small child which prevented smallpox. While this vaccine was effective in the general population, there were limitations when it came to administering the vaccine to large groups of high-risk people.
With modern technology, however, administering vaccines has become much easier and more effective. While the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered this past December, there are already over 39 million people worldwide who have been fully vaccinated and over 120 million who have received at least one dose. What’s more, the vaccine is being administered to high-risk patients and front-line healthcare workers before everyone else which will increase its effectiveness in the long term.
Why Do COPD Patients Need Vaccines?
Most COPD patients are considered “high risk” when it comes to transmittable diseases like COVID-19 and influenza. According to Healthline, COPD is most common in people over the age of 40, and studies have shown that the average age of death for COPD patients is around 77.4 years of age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seniors over the age of 65 are at the highest risk of COVID-19, making up about 80% of the total deaths. They also report similar trends with influenza and other infectious diseases.
Another factor that contributes to COPD patients being “high risk” is that many of them are smokers. According to Very Well Health, 38% of adults with COPD continue to smoke. Nicotine, one of the most harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke, alters the immune response in your body putting you at a higher risk of contracting an infection. According to news-medical.net, carcinogens are the main immunosuppressive agents in cigarette smoke. One of the worst effects of nicotine is that it inhibits the release of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which weakens the ability of neutrophils to kill pathogens (a microorganism that causes disease).
Infection is the Most Common Cause of Exacerbation
A COPD exacerbation is a period of time where your respiratory symptoms suddenly worsen. For example, if you normally experience mild breathlessness and chest pain throughout your day, an exacerbation could cause you to experience more severe symptoms that prevent you from going about your day. Exacerbations can range in severity from mild to severe. They can also have varying time frames from several hours to several days depending on what caused it.
While many things can cause an exacerbation such as air pollution, over exercising, or allergies, lung infections are by far the most common cause. Although infections like pneumonia can be mostly harmless in younger people with healthy lungs, they can be much more serious in COPD patients. COPD, especially chronic bronchitis, is associated with swelling and increased mucus production in the airways. Infections like influenza can contribute to this issue making it even harder to catch a breath.
Infection Can Cause Hospitalization
Not only does infection result in COPD exacerbations, but it’s also the most common cause of hospitalization in COPD patients. Hospitalization is something that you want to avoid at all costs, not only because it’s an indication you’re suffering from something severe, but also because it’s a very heavy financial burden. In 2016, the average cost of a hospital stay was $11,700 meaning it’s the most costly healthcare spending in the country. For more information on avoiding hospitalization due to COPD, read through this post.
Another reason it’s important to avoid hospitals is because they’re not a safe place for you to be during a pandemic. While doctors want anyone and everyone who’s experiencing a medical emergency to feel safe going to a hospital, there’s no reason to risk it if you don’t have to. Not every hospital has the same policies or safety practices when it comes to COVID-19 prevention, so it’s important to research hospitals and do what you can to prevent being hospitalized.
It Protects Other People
Last but certainly not least, getting vaccinated plays an important role in protecting people around you. Infectious diseases are often passed from person-to-person via physical contact or simply breathing the same air. While getting vaccinated is not a surefire sign that you won’t carry a disease or pass it onto someone else, it can help. Even if you are vaccinated for COVID-19, however, you’ll still need to wear a mask and maintain safe social distancing.
Are There Risks to Getting a Vaccine?
Unfortunately, the risks of getting vaccinated are often blown out of proportion. People hear of friends or family members experiencing symptoms of the disease they’re being vaccinated for and this turns them off of receiving the vaccination themselves. But this is a perfectly natural reaction to the vaccination and it’s actually a good sign that the vaccine is working as it should. This is because your body is creating an immune response that leads to the creation of antibodies which inevitably prevents you from getting sick.
Which Vaccines Should COPD Patients Receive?
The influenza vaccine is possibly one of the most important vaccines you can receive because hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized due to the flu every year. Flu symptoms include.
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
It’s recommended that you receive a flu vaccine every year because your body’s defenses will diminish over time. Another reason to keep up to date with your flu vaccines is that there are different strains of this virus. The vaccines may be updated from year-to-year in order to ensure that people have immunity to all of these changing strains.
Pneumococcal disease is the name for infections caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae. You might have never heard of this type of vaccine and that’s because it’s not recommended for everyone. However, the reason it’s often recommended for COPD patients is to prevent pneumonia. This is a respiratory infection that attacks the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs that are responsible for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the blood. COPD patients are more susceptible because they often struggle to clear mucus from the lungs which can carry bacteria.
Pertussis, or whooping cough as it’s more commonly known, can lead to pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs), brain damage, seizures, and even pneumonia. Even the mildest cases of whooping cough can exacerbate COPD symptoms, potentially leading to hospitalization. It’s recommended that adults receive one dose of the Tdap vaccine and they also have the option of getting a booster shot every 10 years which strengthens its effects.
Chickenpox is a highly contagious infection that’s characterized by rashes on the skin. If you’ve had this condition earlier in life you might experience a recurrence called shingles. This is because, after you recover from chickenpox, the virus moves to your nerve tissue where it can emerge later in your life. Fortunately, if you have never contracted chickenpox during your life, you are not at high risk for shingles.
Studies have shown that COPD patients who have had chickenpox are twice as likely to contract shingles as healthy individuals who have had chickenpox. This is most likely due to the widespread inflammation and immune system disruptions caused by the disease. Be sure to speak with your doctor about getting a zoster vaccine if you believe you’re at risk of contracting shingles.
The coronavirus is at the top of everyone’s minds at the moment, and rightfully so. Since early last year, people have been scrambling to find ways to live normal lives without putting themselves and others at risk of contracting this virus. Miraculously, healthcare professionals were able to test out the first-ever COVID-19 vaccine at the end of the year and now it’s being mass-administered all over the world.
As we’ve learned, the people who are at the highest risk of contracting and experiencing severe symptoms from COVID are older adults with chronic conditions, especially pulmonary disease, heart disease, and diabetes. If you fit any of these descriptions, it’s time to reach out to your doctor and ask about receiving a COVID vaccine.
Speak With Your Doctor First
Before going out to get a vaccine, it’s important to first speak with your doctor. Since vaccines are such an important part of COPD management, you’ll want to have a plan to follow before taking any action. Your doctor will recommend vaccinations based on your age, medical history, as well as the expected prognosis of COPD or any other chronic condition you have. In rare cases, your doctor may advise you to not receive a vaccine due to the perceived risks.
Other Safe Practices to Prevent Infection
Social distancing, also known as physical distancing, is the practice of maintaining distance between yourself and others. While it’s debated exactly how much space you need in order to prevent the spread of illness, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends six feet. However, it’s also important to consider the type of environment that you’re in. If you’re indoors where ventilation is poor, you may need to maintain more physical distance in order to be safe. Another thing you should do is be sure to cover your coughs and sneezes in your shoulder.
Wearing a Mask
Surgical masks and cloth face coverings are not designed to filter out viruses, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful when it comes to preventing the spread of disease. Face coverings are effective at preventing large droplets of saliva or mucus from exiting or entering the mouth as well as helping to prevent germs from escaping when you cough or sneeze. It’s important to make sure you’re wearing your mask correctly by ensuring that it covers both your mouth and your nose. Also, make sure the ear straps are tight enough that you don’t have to constantly adjust the mask with your hands which can increase your risk of getting sick.
Practicing Good Hygiene
Hygiene is something that you can always work at to improve and it’s especially important during a pandemic. You should be washing your hands with soap and water periodically throughout the day especially before eating, drinking, and going to bed at night. Cleaning surfaces in your home such as door handles, tables, chairs, keyboards, and countertops will also help to prevent the spread of bacteria.
Follow Your COPD Treatment Plan
At the end of the day, following your COPD treatment plan is just as important as getting vaccinated. Smoking cessation, supplemental oxygen therapy, a consistent exercise routine, and a well-balanced diet will all promote a healthy immune system which is essential for warding off disease, including the novel coronavirus. It will also keep your symptoms in check so that if you do end up getting sick it will be less severe and easier to cope with.
While COPD is not a disease that can be stopped or reversed, a carefully planned treatment regime will significantly reduce adverse symptoms and slow the rate of respiratory decline. It can be overwhelming trying to completely overhaul your lifestyle so you should take things day-by-day and don’t be afraid to reach out to your doctor when you have any questions. Family and friends are also the best people to rely on when you’re facing challenges caused by your disease.
Like anything healthcare-related, vaccinology is a field that continues to grow and evolve. As new infectious diseases are discovered and others mutate, we need new technology and inventions in order to cope with them. Since the advent of the novel coronavirus in 2019, there’s been an increased emphasis on protecting high-risk individuals such as those with COPD and other chronic conditions as well as people over the age of 65 who have a less-active immune system.
While there are occasionally risks associated with vaccines, for the most part, they play a crucial role in keeping people safe and healthy, especially those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Fortunately, COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed all across the world for high-risk individuals, so it’s the perfect time to get one if you haven’t already.
Lastly, you should continue to follow your COPD treatment plan and speak with your doctor regarding your concerns. Supplemental oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, and a balanced diet all play a crucial role in maintaining your health so it’s important to take a holistic approach to your health.