What is pneumococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease is a bacterial infection caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, sometimes known as pneumococcus. Most people carry pneumococcus in their nose and throat, where the bacteria do not cause any symptoms. However, sometimes the bacteria grow and spread to other parts of the body and that’s when you become sick.

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, and can lead to:

  • pneumonia
  • swelling and infection of the brain (meningitis)
  • infection of the blood (septicaemia)
  • coma
  • death.

Symptoms

Pneumococcal disease symptoms depend on which part of the body is infected. Symptoms can include:

  • sore ear(s), hearing loss and fever (middle ear infection)
  • sore face, blocked nose, headaches and a yellow-green mucus (sinus infection)
  • high fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck and coma (brain and spinal cord infection)
  • fever, cough, chest pain and problems breathing (lung infection)
  • fever, muscle aches and pains, and headaches (bloodstream infection)
  • pain, swelling and stiffness in the affected joint (joint infection)
  • fever, pain in the bone and stiffness (bone infection).

Who is at risk

Pneumococcal disease can affect people at any age. The following people have higher risk of infection:

  • young children
  • people over 65
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • anyone with a weakened immune system due to illness or injury
  • people with a malfunctioning spleen, or who have had their spleen removed
  • 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 operations 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 it spreads

Pneumococcal disease spreads:

  • when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and you breathe it in
  • by kissing.
  • If you have pneumococcal disease, you can help stop it spreading by:
  • washing your hands often
  • covering your coughs and sneezes.

Prevention

Pneumococcal disease can be prevented with vaccination.

Find out more about getting vaccinated against pneumococcal disease.

Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnosis pneumococcal disease by:

  • checking your symptoms
  • examining you

Tests to confirm the diagnosis depend on which body part is infected and include:

  • chest X-ray
  • phlegm test
  • blood test
  • urine test
  • spinal fluid test.

If you have pneumococcal disease your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.

Treatment

Pneumococcal disease is treated with antibiotics. 
You can relieve the symptoms by:

  • resting
  • drinking fluids, particularly water
  • taking paracetamol to reduce pain and fever.

Some people with a severe illness may need to go to hospital.

Contacts

National Immunisation Hotline

Resources 

Pneumococcal vaccines for Australians

Last updated: 
6 November 2018