Who needs a pneumococcal vaccine? And why?

No one likes being sick. But sometimes, a wet cough, fever and all-over aches and pains are more serious than your average flu. Caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae, pneumococcal disease is the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia and middle ear infection. And that could be bad news for certain at-risk people.

Not counting mothers giving birth, pneumonia is the most common reason for being admitted to a hospital. Seniors face the most risk, with about 85 percent of all pneumonia deaths occurring after age 65. Adults with chronic conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and diabetes also face a higher risk of complication from pneumococcal disease.

The good news? There's a pneumococcal vaccine that's your best bet to fight off the disease. But is getting the pneumococcal shot right for you? Read this who-what-when-why guide to figure it out.

Who needs it?

A lot of people do. Only about 69 percent of adults ages 65 and older have received a pneumococcal vaccination. That means nearly one in three people leave themselves wide open to a potentially deadly disease. The risk comes from the fact that the immune system weakens as the body ages. Conditions such as diabetes and cancer can also hamper the immune system, so adults older than 19 years suffering from chronic illness should consider getting a pneumococcal immunization shot as well.

Lifestyle and circumstance can also contribute to your risks from the disease. Smokers and heavy drinkers are more vulnerable than others, and so are people recovering from surgery or a major illness. But you don't have to wait until you're in the most risk to protect yourself with the pneumococcal vaccine - and you certainly can't wait until symptoms start to appear. Get the shot when you're feeling healthy and you won't regret it when you aren't.

Which shot do you need?

The pneumococcal vaccine comes in two varieties: pneumococcal conjugate (also known as PCV13 or Prevnar 13®) and pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPSV23 or Pneumovax23®). It's not a matter of one being better than the other, since each protects against different strains of the bacteria. If you can, get PCV13 first, and PPSV23 a year later. If you already got PPSV23, just make sure you wait at least one year before getting PCV13.

When should you get it?

Just one pneumococcal shot can protect 80 percent of infants from serious infections and 75 percent of seniors from invasive pneumococcal disease. It can also prevent about 45 percent of instances of pneumococcal pneumonia in seniors. All of which is to say that it's never too early to get this vaccination - but if you have diabetes, make sure you get a Pneumovax23® shot before the age of 65.

Unlike flu shots, the pneumococcal vaccine is available all year long, and you can even schedule your pneumococcal shot at the same time as your flu shot, as long as you get them in different arms. Remember, if you got one between the ages of 2 and 64, you might need a second shot between 5 and 10 years later. But if you received your pneumococcal vaccinations after age 65, you probably won't need a booster shot at all.

Why should you stop putting it off?

Both pneumococcal vaccines are covered by most insurance plans, as well as by Medicare Part B, and at zero cost under original Medicare with your doctor's approval. Also, despite what you may have heard, the vaccine cannot give you pneumonia - they include only an extract of the bacteria, not the infectious live bacteria themselves. The worst side effects you'll experience will be swelling, soreness or redness at the point of injection.

There's no reason to be skittish about making this appointment, and it could quite literally save your life.

- Dr. Sunny Sharma is a board-certified internist with Amita Health with a clinical interest in preventive medicine, weight loss and management, complex chronic conditions and sports medicine.