Vaccines that Protect Against Infectious Respiratory Diseases

Most vaccine-preventable diseases are spread from person to person, which means that if one person in a community gets an infectious disease, they can spread it to others. The best way to help stop the spread of certain diseases is through vaccination. If enough people are vaccinated there are fewer chances for a vaccine-preventable disease to spread, keeping everyone healthier.

Understanding Respiratory Viruses

Infectious respiratory diseases such as influenza, COVID-19, and RSV spread from person to person. Learn how your body fights back against these pathogens and some of the common side effects that you may experience as your immune system attacks.

How Vaccines Work

There are several kinds of vaccines. Some contain the same germs that cause disease; however the germs have been weakened or deadened. Others contain either a harmless part of the germ or its genetic material (such as the synthetic messenger RNA used for some COVID-19 vaccines). 

A vaccine stimulates your immune system so that you produce the same antibodies you would make if you were exposed to the real disease. It helps your body learn to recognize and fight an invasion of a particular germ. Thus, you get to develop immunity to that disease without having to get the disease first. 

Vaccines Prevent Respiratory Diseases

What Respiratory Diseases Have Vaccines?

There are vaccines for some infectious respiratory diseases, including:

Some infectious respiratory diseases do not yet have a vaccine, including:

Talk to your doctor to see if you are up to date on your vaccinations.  It’s always better to prevent a disease rather than treat it after it occurs.

Why Vaccinations are Important for Adults with Lung Disease

People with lung disease such as asthma or COPD may be at higher risk for serious illness from certain vaccine-preventable diseases. For best protection, it’s important to stay up to date on the following vaccinations:

  • COVID-19 – to protect against severe COVID-19 illness
  • Influenza – to protect against season flu each year
  • Pneumococcal pneumonia – to protect against the most common type of bacterial pneumonia
  • RSV – to protect against severe RSV illness in adults 60+
  • Tdap – to protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Zoster – to protect against shingles

Vaccine-preventable diseases can cause long-term illness, existing chronic health conditions to worsen, hospitalization and death. Talk with your healthcare provider to be sure you are up to date with all recommended vaccinations for you.

A History of Vaccines

Vaccines have a long and impressive history. Well before we understood how infections worked, in the late 1700s an English physician Edward Jenner learned that giving small amounts of infected material from smallpox victims to others provided them protection from the dreaded disease. It was from those learnings that he developed a smallpox vaccine saving countless lives and small-pox has now been eradicated worldwide. Since that first vaccine was developed in 1798, we have used that same principle to produce vaccines to almost eliminate many of the formerly deadly childhood infectious diseases from the U.S.  In fact, the greatest vaccine success in the modern era has been the near worldwide elimination of polio.

But it’s not always that simple. Try as we might, we have not yet been able to develop successful vaccines to control other important worldwide infections, such as tuberculosis (TB), malaria and HIV. In addition, controlling influenza also remains a challenge requiring new vaccines each flu season. Most recently, scientists are working tirelessly to create additional vaccines to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.

How Vaccines Are Approved

Vaccine and new drug testing are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are done in a similar way. Below is the typical process that FDA expects vaccine developers to follow to provide safety and effectiveness data of a vaccine.

The vaccine is extensively tested in cells or animals to see if it can elicit an immune response and identify any serious side effects. If animal testing seems safe and effective, this is when a group submits their study to the FDA for approval to move on to the next stage of testing.

This is the first time the vaccine is tested in small groups of healthy volunteers. Researchers will closely monitor for side effects and safety.

This stage is randomized, diverse, controlled and includes a larger number of participants. Individuals may include children, elderly, and other high-risk groups. The goal of this phase is to determine what variables may affect the safety of the vaccine, differences in immune responses, as well as the most effective dosage size and delivery method.

Researchers give the new medicine or treatment to an even larger group of participants to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, and collect information that will allow the new medicine or treatment to be used safely. They measure effectiveness by comparing the people who get the vaccine to a control group of people who did not get the vaccine.

After a successful Phase III, the FDA will review the results and decide whether or not to approve it. The vaccine must be safe and effective, and the benefits of the vaccine must outweigh risks. If approved, the FDA will then license the vaccine for distribution. Once licensed, the FDA will continue to monitor the production, potency and effectiveness of the vaccine through.

If the need for the vaccine is urgent, such as with a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, the process for approving vaccines may be expedited. The FDA may issue an emergency use authorization (EUA) before all the testing is completed. But this will only happen if positive safety and effectiveness results are shown throughout all phases of testing. Adverse events are also noted and evaluated to see if they impact authorization. For an EUA to be issued for a vaccine, the FDA must determine that the known and potential benefits outweigh the known and potential risks of the vaccine.

Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines Explained | FDA

Learn more by searching for recent vaccine topics covered in our Each Breath blog.

Still Have Questions?

Contact our Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA for one-on-one support, or submit your question online.
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Page last updated: June 7, 2024

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