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Pneumococcal Infections: Symptoms, Types, Risk Factors, Causes, and Treatment

Pneumococcal Infections: Symptoms, Types, Risk Factors, Causes, and Treatment

April 11, 2023
Pneumococcal Infections: Symptoms, Types, Risk Factors, Causes, and Treatment

Pneumococcal disease is an infection caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae. It causes contagious and potentially severe illness, including pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis, so early diagnosis and treatment is important. Vaccines are the best protection against developing infection.

What are Pneumococcal Infections?

Pneumococcal disease is caused by bacteria that can attack different parts of the body. When these bacteria invade the lungs, they can cause pneumonia; when they invade the bloodstream, they can cause sepsis; and when they invade the covering of the brain, they can cause meningitis. These serious conditions often require hospitalization, and can lead to death.

Anyone can get pneumococcal disease, but some groups are at increased risk including:

  • Children younger than age 2 years
  • Adults over age 65 years
  • Children and adults with certain chronic health conditions, including chronic heart disease, lung disease, kidney or liver disease, diabetes, or illnesses that weaken the immune system, such as HIV and certain cancers, among others

Types of Pneumococcal Infections

Scientists have identified about 100 strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae. They cause two main types of pneumococcal disease:

  • Noninvasive: This type of infection is more common, less serious, and doesn’t spread to infect major organs or your blood.
  • Invasive: This more severe type occurs in your blood, in an area of your body that shouldn’t have bacteria normally (like bone or your brain) or in a major organ like your lungs.

Signs and Symptoms of Pneumococcal Infections

The most common ones include:

Migraine Attack
  • A fever
  • Chills
  • Sweat
  • Aches and pains
  • A headache
  • Malaise, or generally feeling unwell

These symptoms can appear in the early stages of an infection. They will often go away with over-the-counter medication. Anyone who has concerns about symptoms should see a doctor. Getting treatment in the early stages can prevent complications from developing.

Possible complications of pneumococcal disease include:

What Causes Pneumococcal Infections?

Pneumonia is typically due to infectious pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses. These pathogens can spread via coughing and sneezing or by contaminating surfaces that people touch.

In most cases, a person contracts pneumonia-causing pathogens by breathing them into the small air sacs, or alveoli, within their lungs. The immune system responds by sending white blood cells to attack the infection, which triggers inflammation of the alveoli. The alveoli fill with fluid and pus, causing pneumonia.

Risk Factors for Pneumococcal Infections

People with a weakened immune system are most at risk of catching a pneumococcal infection. This may be because:

  • They have a serious health condition, such as HIV or diabetes, that weakens their immune system
  • They are having treatment or taking medication that weakens their immune system, such as chemotherapy

Other at-risk groups include:

  • Babies and young children under two years of age
  • Adults over 65 years of age
  • People who smoke or misuse alcohol

Treatment, Management, and Prevention of Pneumococcal Infections

Healthcare providers typically use antibiotics to treat bacterial infections such as pneumococcal disease. Your provider may have to try several antibiotics because the bacteria have become resistant to certain medications. For mild infections, your healthcare provider may also recommend:

In severe cases, such as meningitis, you may need to stay in the hospital for treatment.

Getting vaccinated is the most effective way to reduce your risk of developing pneumococcal disease. Vaccines are currently recommended for:

  • Children younger than 2. (It’s currently part of the standard immunization schedule for babies and children in the United States).
  • Children and adults with other chronic diseases and immune deficiencies that make them more susceptible to pneumococcal infections.
  • Adults 65 and older.
  • People between 19 and 64 who have certain medical conditions or other risk factors.
  • People who live or work in a nursing home or other long-term care facilities.

Talk to a healthcare provider about the appropriate vaccine and its timing for you or your child. You should receive the flu vaccine during the appropriate season. You can get both vaccines at the same time. 

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