Country music legend Merle Haggard died Wednesday of double pneumonia, a killer disease that takes too many lives, yet is often preventable, a top expert says.
“Pneumonia is a major killer of adults. It can strike people at any age, but it’s more dangerous in people who are elderly or who have conditions that make them vulnerable, and these people need to be protected," says Dr. Marc Leavey.
Haggard died on his 79th birthday of double pneumonia at his home in Northern California, according to CNN
. He had been in declining health, having been hospitalized repeatedly with pneumonia, which forced the cancellation of his concerts.
About 1 million people are seen at a hospital due to pneumonia every year, and 50,000 of them die. But vaccines are available that can prevent the infectious lung condition.
“Although 50,000 people may seem like a small number, it’s the equivalent of two jetliners filled with people going down each week,” says Leavey, who is an internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “If you think of it like that, should we stand for it? No, which is why more people should be getting vaccinated.”
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages. Common signs of pneumonia can include cough, fever, and trouble breathing. When the infection occurs in both lungs, the illness is known as double pneumonia.
According to Leavey, the best way to avoid pneumonia is to get vaccinated. Federal health officials recommend that adults 65 and older get the vaccine, but people who are more vulnerable should consider it earlier.
“These include people who have diseases that either weaken their immune system or they are taking drugs that suppress it – for rheumatoid arthritis, for example. Also people who have lung disease, asthma, diabetes, or those who are overweight and don’t breathe as deeply – all these types of people should consider being vaccinated earlier,” he says.
In 2008, Haggard had a lemon-sized tumor removed from his right lung, but did not require chemotherapy or radiation. Although the ailment was characterized as lung cancer, his condition had been benign, he told Fox News
in 2014. But such an ailment "could have set him up for pneumonia," says Leavey.
Vaccination for pneumonia involves getting two different vaccines, generally a year apart, says Leavey. This is because there are 90 types of pneumococcal bacteria that cause the disease.
The vaccine called PCV 13 targets 13 types and PPSV23 prevents 23 types of bacterial pneumonia. In addition, both vaccines provide protection against illnesses like meningitis (infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord) and bacteremia (blood infection), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
In addition to the vaccine, antibiotics are also necessary to prevent pneumonia from becoming deadly, and they should be used as early as possible in the course of the disease, says Leavey.
Other ways to keep from getting a serious case of pneumonia including living a healthy lifestyle, which minimizes the possibility of chronic disease by boosting the immune system, and by being aware of symptoms if you get sick.
Common symptoms of pneumonia are:
- Cough (with some forms of pneumonia you may cough up greenish or yellow mucus, or even bloody mucus).
- Fever, which may be mild or high.
- Shaking chills.
- Shortness of breath, which may only occur when you climb stairs.
“If you cough up blood – even a little bit – call your doctor immediately. If you wait, you’ll only get worse,” warns Leavey. “Even healthy people can die from pneumonia. It’s a very serious disease that needs to be treated with aggressive care.”
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