Pneumococcal disease is a potentially deadly bacterial infection. It mainly affects young children, older people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people with weakened immune systems. Vaccination is the best protection against pneumococcal disease.
What is pneumococcal disease?
Pneumococcal disease is caused by bacteria known as Streptococcus pneumoniae, sometimes known as pneumococcus.. The bacteria can cause a number of different types of very serious disease, which can affect the lungs, ears, sinuses and brain. Pneumococcal disease is serious because it can lead to:
- swelling and infection of the brain (meningitis)
- infection of the blood (septicaemia)
What are the symptoms of pneumococcal disease?
Symptoms of pneumococcal disease vary depending on which body part is infected:
- middle ear: sore ear(s), hearing loss, fever
- sinuses: sore face, blocked nose, headaches and a yellow–green mucus
- membranes of the brain and spinal cord: high fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck and coma
- lungs: fever, cough, chest pain and problems breathing
- bloodstream: fever, muscle aches and pains, and headaches
- joints: pain, swelling and stiffness in the affected joint
- bones: fever, pain in the bone and stiffness.
Who is at risk from pneumococcal disease?
The people most at risk of getting pneumococcal disease are:
- young children
- people over 65 years old
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
- people who have weakened immune systems
- people who have had their spleen removed or when it does not work properly
- people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, lung disease, kidney disease, heart disease, liver disease or cancer
- premature babies
- people who have Down syndrome
- people who smoke
- people who drink harmful amounts of alcohol
- people who have had specific operation including cochlear implants and intracranial shunts
- people who have a condition where the fluid leaks out from around their brain and spinal cord
- people who have had pneumococcal disease before.
How do you get pneumococcal disease?
The bacteria, Streptococcus pneumoniae, can spread from person to person. Spreading occurs from secretions from the nose and the throat (i.e., coughing, sneezing, kissing etc). Most people carry pneumococcus in their nose and throat, where the bacteria do not cause any symptoms. However, sometimes the bacteria can grow and spread to other parts of the body. When this happens, you get sick.
How do you prevent pneumococcal disease?
Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against pneumococcal disease.
Pneumococcal vaccines protect you from getting infected with many of the common strains of pneumococcal bacteria. As such, they prevent many serious cases of the disease. For more information on pneumococcal immunisation, see Pneumococcal immunisation service.
To prevent pneumococcal disease spreading:
- always cover your coughs and sneezes
- wash your hands often.
How do you know if you have pneumococcal disease?
If you think you or one of your family members has pneumococcal disease, see your doctor.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and do an examination. If your doctor thinks you have pneumococcal disease, they can confirm the diagnosis in different ways, depending on which body part is infected:
- chest X-ray
- phlegm test
- blood test
- urine test
- spinal fluid test.
How do you get treated for pneumococcal disease?
Pneumococcal disease is treated with antibiotics.
People with serious pneumococcal disease may need to go to hospital.
- The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance has resources for consumers.
- See the Australian Immunisation Handbook for technical details.
If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.