Pneumococcal Disease


Pneumococcal disease (pneumococcus) refers to an infection caused by Streptococcus pneumoniaebacteria. These bacteria can cause some common illnesses, such as ear infections and sinus infections. However, they are also responsible for many serious, sometimes deadly, conditions such as meningitis, pneumonia, and sepsis. Children under 2 are most at risk for serious pneumococcal disease, although the risk is also high for people with chronic conditions and weak immune systems. Fortunately, there are vaccines that can prevent pneumococcus infections and antibiotics can usually treat them.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The symptoms of a pneumococcus disease depend on the area of the body infected. Pneumococcal ear infections are very common in children and cause ear pain, swollen eardrum, and fever. Pneumococcal meningitis is inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, which causes a stiff neck, fever, headache, confusions, and sometimes a rash. Pneumococcus can also infect the blood, causing sepsis or bacteremia, which can result in fever, chills, and low alertness. Pneumonia is a very common form of pneumococcal infection, and can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and fever and chills. Sepsis, bacteremia, and meningitis are all serious forms of pneumococcal disease that can be fatal if not identified early and treated.

Milder pneumococcal infections can usually be diagnosed based on symptoms and a physical exam. Invasive pneumococcal disease may be diagnosed with blood or cerebrospinal fluid cultures. If the pneumococcal bacteria can be grown, doctors can identify confirm the diagnosis and determine what type of antibiotics will work best to treat the infection.


Pneumococcal bacteria are spread through contact with infected saliva or mucus. The bacteria can be present in the nose or throat but not cause illness. When the bacteria enter areas of the body that normally do not have any germs, they are called invasive. Invasive forms of pneumococcus include bacteremia and meningitis, because the bacteria invade the bloodstream and tissues and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, respectively. An invasive infection is more severe than other types of pneumococcus and usually results in hospitalization.

Certain people are at a higher risk of getting pneumococcal disease. It can be especially dangerous for children under 2, children with chronic illnesses or weak immune systems, and is more likely in children in group care centers. Smokers, adults over 65, and people living in nursing homes are also at an increased risk, as is anyone with a chronic illness or weakened immune system. Children and adults with cochlear implants or cerebrospinal fluid leaks are also more likely to get pneumococcus. Continue reading for Prevention and Treatment Information . . .

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