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Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, or pneumococcus, can cause many types of illnesses. Some of these illnesses can be life-threatening.  Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, can be caused by many different bacteria, viruses, and even fungi. Pneumococcus is one of the most common causes of severe pneumonia. Pneumococcus can cause other types of infections too, such as ear infections, sinus infections, meningitis (infection of the covering around the brain and spinal cord), and bacteremia (blood stream infection).

Some of these infections are considered “invasive.” Invasive disease means that germs invade parts of the body that are normally free from germs. For example, pneumococcal bacteria can invade the bloodstream, causing bacteremia, and the tissues and fluids surrounding the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis. When this happens, disease is usually very severe, requiring treatment in a hospital and even causing death in some cases.

Meningitis is the most severe type of invasive pneumococcal disease. Of children younger than 5 years old who get pneumococcal meningitis, about 1 out of 15 dies of the infection and others may have long-term problems, such as hearing loss or developmental delay. The chance of death increases among elderly patients.

Bacteremia is a type of invasive pneumococcal disease that infects the blood. About 1 out of 100 children younger than 5 years old with this blood stream infection die of it. The chance of death increases among elderly patients.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can cause mild to severe illness in people of all ages. Complications of pneumococcal pneumonia include infection of the space between membranes that surround the lungs and chest cavity (empyema), inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart (pericarditis), and blockage of the airway that allows air into the lungs (endobronchial obstruction), with lung collapse (atelectasis) and collection of pus (abscess) in the lungs. About 5 out of 100 people with non-invasive pneumococcal pneumonia will die from it, but that rate may be higher among elderly patients.

Sinus and ear infections are usually mild and are much more common than the more severe forms of pneumococcal disease. However, some children develop repeated ear infections and may need ear tubes.

The best way to prevent pneumococcal disease is by getting vaccinated.  There are two pneumacoccal vaccines available in the United States:  pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13 or Prevnar 13®) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23 or Pneumovax 23®).

The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13 or Prevnar 13®) protects against the 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria that cause most of the severe illness in children and adults. The vaccine can also help prevent some ear infections.  PCV13 is recommended for all children under 2 years old, all adults 65 years and older, and people 2 through 64 years old with certain medical conditions

The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23 or Pneumovax 23®) protects against 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria. It is recommended for all adults 65 years or older and for anyone who is 2 years or older at high risk for disease. PPSV23 is also recommended for adults 19 through 64 years old who have heart, lung or liver disease, alcoholism, diabetes, asthma or who smoke cigarettes.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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